Marvel Knights To MAX, Imprints Strike Back

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 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, Marvel has begun rolling out new project announcements on the road to Comic-Con International 2013, and so we're focusing down on the imprints impacted by this latest wave of news. First up, Axel explains how he views the modern shape of the Marvel Knights imprint and how it went from risk-taking mainstream alternative to full on indie comics stomping ground. Then, he tells the story behind the story of "Fantomex MAX" from the new role for E.V.A. to the history of writer Andrew Hope's pitch. Finally, we delve into the return of the Marvel Annual as the company attempts to ties the stories of the monthly series back into the oversized offerings with "Indestructible Hulk" and "Superior Spider-Man." Read on!

Kiel Phegley: Axel, Marvel announcements surrounding San Diego have started to hit, and looking over what's on tap, I can't help but notice a focus on some imprints. Let's start with the three Marvel Knights books announced. I've got to say that I feel like Marvel Knights hasn't had a real strong identity for the past few years -- certainly nothing like when it launched under Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti years ago. What did you see as the meaning of Marvel Knights now and the identity of the brand?

Axel Alonso: When Joe and Jimmy started Marvel Knights, they built books that stood apart from the rest of the Marvel line by virtue of the talent they were tapping -- writers and artists that brought a darker, edgier, grittier, more -- progressive sensibility to their work. Heck, I remember cursing them out for stealing guys like Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon and Tim Bradstreet from me back when I was at Vertigo! [Laughs] It was a very forward-thinking move.

Of course, when Joe became Editor-in-Chief and I came over from Vertigo, that talent pool -- that Rolodex -- spread across the entire line. Suddenly, writers like Brian Bendis, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, J. Michael Straczynski and Peter Milligan were popping up across the Marvel Universe, Ultimates and MAX titles. [Former MK editor] Stuart Moore briefly ran Knights as the place for edgier, street-level stories -- anchored by [Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev's] "Daredevil" and [Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's] "Punisher" -- but, with Brian and Garth writing Marvel Universe titles, it no longer stood apart for its talent. So we readjusted: Knights adopted the mandate of NuMarvel's "Startling Stories" line and became a prestige line where top creators could tell great stories that weren't constrained by continuity -- stuff like Kaare Andrews with "Spider-Man: Reign" or JMS [J. Michael Straczynski] and Esad Ribic with "Silver Surfer." That plan flourished for about a year, until the zeitgeist changed and fans started to put a real premium on relevance to continuity.

What we're doing with Marvel Knights now is something different. We're tapping creators we deem to be people to watch and saying, "You know that story you've been itching to write featuring your favorite Marvel character? Do it -- and be yourself." What we're offering up are creators like Matt Kindt, Brahm Revel, Joe Keatinge, Marco Rudy and Piotr Kowalski, telling evergreen stories that are set in continuity -- stories that do count and whose ripple effects could be felt down the line, but that aren't constrained by having to tie in with what's going on in the core series or the latest event. So each series one is like a film. But more [David] Cronenberg or [David] Lynch than [Jerry] Bruckheimer. [Laughs]

Looking at the writers behind these books, with Matt Kindt on the Spider-Man project and Joe Keatinge on Hulk, you do have two guys who have undeniably gotten acclaim for their non-mainstream work. But they've also taken on a number of regular Marvel U projects in the past year. Is there a way in which their Marvel Knights projects will be significantly different than, say, Matt's short Spider-Man stories or Joe's "Morbius" work?

Alonso: It's the whole package that sets these projects apart -- the tone, tenor and visual sensibility of each. We want each series to tap the sensibilities that drew us to these creators in the first place. It's Matt Kindt, flexing the same muscles he did to write "Superspy" and "Mind MGMT." It's [artist] Piotr Kowalski turning the Hulk loose on Paris! It's Marco Rudy, tangling Spidey up in his insane layouts.

Brahm Revel is serving as both writer and artist for "Marvel Knights: X-Men," and he's a creator who's name I can place in general and whose art I can picture from seeing it online, but I've read less of his work than some others. What did you see that made you want to recruit him to this line?

Alonso: Brahm write and draws "Guerrillas" for Oni. I saw a real voice in his first couple volumes and wondered what he'd do with a Marvel character. Full disclosure: There was a point where Brahm looked at his schedule and considered just writing the story, and I actually did an intervention [Laughs]. I persuaded him to find the time to draw it. Like David Lapham on "Stray Bullets" or Kyle Baker on "You Are Here," Brahm's work is the sum total of his writing and drawing. It just wouldn't have felt right if someone else drew it.

On the other side of the equation, there's a new MAX series in "Fantomex MAX" by Andrew Hope and Shawn Crystal. I feel like this is an imprint that never goes away but is kind of constantly rotating new books with new characters coming off the bench for an adults-only take. Here, were you looking for a new MAX title in the wake of "Fury MAX" ending, or was it just a matter of the specific pitch hitting at the right time?

Alonso: Look, we'll never flood the racks with MAX titles, but we'll always make them. The Marvel catalogue runs deep, and there are a lot of characters that benefit from the extra creative latitude that MAX allows. Take "Punisher MAX," for instance: Garth [Ennis] was about to retire from the Marvel Knights series when the idea of doing Frank Castle as a "mature readers" gave him the second-wind to write 66 issues worth of stories.

In Fantomex, you have a character that blends James Bond, Robin Hood and Diabolik. [Writer] Andrew Hope and [artist] Shawn Crystal figured he'd be the perfect character to do a science fiction-laced heist flick: Fantomex, aided be his eye-popping A.I. assistant EVA, attempts to pull off the heist of the millennium. It's a suicide mission. He knows it. And that's exactly why he does it in the first place. For Shawn, who's drawn a lot of "Deadpool," this project is an evolutionary leap -- he's channeling Will Eisner, Jim Steranko, Mike Ploog. If you're a fan of the Fantomex from "New X-Men" and "Uncanny X-Force," you'll want to check it out.

The last piece of announcement news isn't quite an imprint, but Marvel is rolling out some new Annuals, which are a specific kind of comics publishing that do seem to come in and out of fashion. In fact, I recall Steve Wacker asking the other day on Twitter whether the format was still something people were interested in. It feels like with these "Superior Spider-Man" and "Indestructible Hulk" Annuals, Marvel is trying to tie them back into the monthly comics in a stronger way. Is that a fair assumption?

Alonso: It is. Simply put, more readers come to an annual if they know it's relevant, that it counts. They want to know the story they're reading is part of a larger tapestry.

Is this something that came about as a coordinated effort to put those kinds of Annuals back on the map at Marvel?

Alonso: Our annuals strategy is the result of a long- term debate and research. It all started with a question: If "Avengers" sells 80K, but an "Avengers Annual" sells only 40K, where did those other 40K readers go? And why? We slowly came to the realization that readers perceived annuals to be of little to no consequence to the ongoing series -- to the ongoing lives of the title characters -- and we decided to rectify that. So that's what we're providing with the annuals: stories that count, featuring top talent.

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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