MARVEL T&A: New Readers, New Methods

If it's Friday, it must be time to end your week with a little T&A!

CBR News is back again to present an open and honest Q&A with Marvel Comics SVP of Publishing Tom Brevoort and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso - the feature we like to call MARVEL T&A! Each week, the pair of newly-promoted comic pushers stop by CBR News to cover the ins and outs of the House of Ideas and answer questions posed by our readership on the CBR Message Boards.

This week sees some in-depth discussion on who's reading Marvel comics, where they come from and how Marvel can best reach them with sweeping changes like the relaunch of "Mighty Thor" and the incoming "Fear Itself" event. And Tom and Axel both step up to the challenge of explaining how Thor as a franchise will be more ingrained to the Marvel U while remaining accessible, as well as a look at the rough sales picture that ended 2010 and how Marvel hopes to remedy that situation this year. Plus: a very special announcement about the future of this very column! Read on!

Kiel Phegley: Tom, I wanted to start things with you this week because there's a question you threw out to the boards a few weeks back we haven't been able to return to, with the holidays and promotions and what not: the question of what recent comic fans' "gateway drug" was. Was there anything in particular you took from the responses we had? Anything that was confirmed or not confirmed about your suspicions?

Tom Brevoort: Well, I learned that more people came into the hobby in the '90s, it seems, than did in the 2000s. Certainly people told stories about hearing in the news about "Civil War" or "The Death of Captain America" or whatever, and that brought them into the stores. Or "I ran across 'Ultimate Spider-Man' in a bookstore after the 'Spider-Man' movie." Those kinds of things. But it seemed like there were more stories on those boards about people having come on board in the '90s or even earlier. That says to me that at least your board presence is older. [Laughs] I don't know how much concrete, hard data that amounts to because it's all anecdotal, and there was no real consensus that jumped out and made me go, "People are coming in through book stores" or digital or comic shops or because they're reading about comics in the mass media. It seems like the entry stories were very diffuse. There was some commonality but not a wellspring of commonality.

I suspect that on the other side of the aisle, you could probably find a bunch of people who came into comics off the buzz surrounding the "Watchmen" movie. There were all these people who bought the "Watchmen" collection before the film came out, and hopefully some of them stuck around and are reading comics-and especially Marvel Comics-right now. But it doesn't seem like there was any one thing like that bringing people in the doors, other than maybe the films in general. That there's been X-Men movies and Spider-Man movies and Fantastic Four movies and Daredevil movies and so forth, that's interested people in the characters enough where they've made the leap to say, "There're printed stories about these guys too? I'll check those out!"

But again, I find this stuff interesting, and that's information that I like to know about on a personal level since I want to get a sense of where whatever new audience there is is coming from. How are they getting brought into being regular comic book readers (or at least regular enough that they frequent the CBR message boards)?

That's one interesting piece of this. As much as we love the board guys and gals, they really pretty much represent one very dedicated group of comic readers: the Wednesday, Direct Market crowd. You must have all sorts of other information about people buying Marvel stuff in bookstores or online. Do you have a sense for how that section of the audience is tapping into comics and the news around the books? How do you reach those people as opposed to the comic shop audience?

Brevoort: This is kind of the reason I asked the question in the first place. And it's not a perfect system because, as you say, for the most part the guys posting on the CBR boards are going to be the most dedicated, hard core readers. Even if they started by picking up a trade in a bookstore or being given one as a gift or whatever, they came into this world enough to realize the books come out monthly, more often than not, and they can get them in comic shops even if they prefer the trade format. That drive to get the newest releases immediately pulls the most hardcore of our audience into the comic stores.

But I do think there is a big, casual readership that I'm not sure we always know how to message to or to service beyond putting quality material out into a marketplace that eventually gets it to them. I think that includes people we think of as "lapsed readers," people who were monthly periodical readers at some point back in the day - whether it was in the early 2000s or the '90s or the '80s or whatever - who fell out of the habit for some reason, like they went to college, discovered girls, found a job or their money got tight. They've now rediscovered their love of this stuff form the films or television or from coming across it in bookstores, and I suspect, though I don't have any hard data to prove it, that that is an audience who's less concerned with what order to read things in. They want to be able to buy a trade or a hardcover and get a full, complete, enjoyable reading experience and then move on to the next one. If you buy "Ultimate Spider-Man" Vol. 1, it's pretty easy to figure out to move right on to Vol. 2, but it's not quite as urgent an urge to be there next Wednesday to pick it up. So it's a more casual-minded audience.

I don't know that we have any real good mechanism to measure or quantify that audience beyond seeing what collections sell really well in the bookstore market. And I'm not sure how, other than mainstream news stories - which we've had a number of lately - how you communicate to that audience because they're not centralized in the way the backbone of our readership is: the portion of the audience that can be found online on the boards or at conventions or clustered around their local comic shops. In those cases, we can produce promotional items such as posters or checklist cards or those Sneak Previews samplers we've been doing, and feel confident that the information will flow through the retailers to their customers. But this is something that I think about and we all think about, and we work on it. David Gabriel and his guys work with the various bookstore buyers and mass audience outlets like Scholastic - all of the pipelines we distribute to - and gets feedback from them based on whatever it is that they're selling. But that's not as exact as being able to target specific information about upcoming releases directly to those people, except for after the fact.

Taking this conversation into the news, you announced this week that "Thor" is relaunching as "Mighty Thor" while the original numbering continues as "Journey Into Mystery." This is very similar to what happened with "Invincible Iron Man" right around the time of that character's first big movie...

Brevoort: We think of that as "The Fraction Maneuver!" [Laughter] Or maybe "The Fraction Stratagem!"

This is a way, obviously, to bring in people who have not been reading "Thor," but with the digital stuff out there on mobile devices, will you be looking to take "Mighty Thor" day-and-date in order to reach out to an audience more primed for the movie than for comic shops?

Brevoort: I don't think we have any plans right now for Matt's "Mighty Thor" to go digital day-and-date or even close to day-and-date. I think the paradigm that we struck gold when we did "Invincible Iron Man" was good, and it gave us a series that sold well and was a nice entry point for people, and was also critically acclaimed and an Eisner-Award winner. That's the formula we're going for here. One thing a lot of people have overlooked is that "Mighty Thor" #1 is coming out during a massive event that Matt himself is writing, "Fear Itself," and yet the series does not directly tie into that event. Part of the reason for that, quite honestly, is that we want to make sure that this first arc is a clean, friendly entry point into "Mighty Thor" especially for customers who may have seen either the movie or even the promotion for the movie. We want to be mindful of that audience, and not hit them with the staggeringly complex manner in which we sometimes tell our stories in the world of comic books.

And when you start something at #1, people are going to feel more comfortable coming into it than if you give them #621-they'll understand immediately that it's a starting point. That's just a fact of life. Having the opportunity of this enormous spotlight on Thor, going this route again just made sense to us. And this is all born out by the fact that we tried this a few years ago with "Invincible Iron Man," and that absolutely worked.

Is there a way in which on a nuts and bolts story level that Matt had to course correct what he was planning to make for a new #1? I mean, is there a way you can point to "Mighty Thor" and say "THIS makes it different than what would have been Matt's second arc on 'Thor'"?

Brevoort: It is, although there wasn't as much of a course correction as you may think. We knew we were going to be doing this virtually from the moment when Matt stepped onto the series. So it was part of his plan from day one, and he's handled this kind of relaunch before. So certainly, I'm sure he had to mentally shift gears and go "I have to guide people from what they just saw in the cinema into my story." But that would be the case even if it was just the next issue of "Thor" we were talking about.

How will you be balancing all those threads between "Fear Itself," which includes Asgardians, and "Journey Into Mystery," which uses the supporting cast? In what ways does Matt's current arc affect all this stuff that's going on aside from affecting Thor as a character before "Mighty" hits?

Brevoort: The story that Matt's working on in "Thor" right now has a bearing on all of this stuff, as it's the previous adventure for Thor, but also in terms of Odin's return and what that return means for the gods of Asgard. They've gone through the last bunch of years All-Fatherless. What does that mean considering what Balder has done as King, or the fact that Loki has come back as a kid? All of those themes continue into "Fear Itself," and certainly Kieron [Gillen] will be picking up on the Loki side of the coin in "Journey," and all of this will inform the stories Matt is telling in "Mighty Thor." But in that book, at the outset, he'll also be telling a new story with an inciting incident and a simple starting point that begin in a straightforward and inviting way.

In a sense, "Mighty" is no different than - and I know I keep going back to this as an example, but it's the best one I've got - "Invincible Iron Man." When that book launched, Tony Stark was Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and involved in that world in a very personal way in the other "Iron Man" book that was then coming out. And he still had that job in Matt's first arc, but we downplayed it to make it as easy as possible for you to go from seeing Robert Downey, Jr. to the comic and being able to recognize Tony Stark as the same character. The same will hold true of Matt's first "Mighty Thor" arc. His second arc will begin to send tendrils out into the rest of the Marvel Universe in the same way that "World's Most Wanted" was completely enmeshed into Dark Reign and the changes after "Secret Invasion" with Norman Osborn being in power.

So the first arc in "Mighty Thor" is a gateway point, but it's not a throwaway arc any more than the "Five Nightmares" arc was a throwaway. In fact, it's informed everything Matt's done in "Invincible Iron Man." I mean, spoilers here, but we saw Zeke Stane at the end of "Resilient", and he's going to continue to factor into Matt's plans in the future. At the same time, "Journey Into Mystery" will be much more interconnected with the Marvel U and "Fear Itself" and that will be the place to see the characters' involvement in this larger superstory.

One last question on this thread: "Thor" is not the only Marvel Studios movie hitting this summer. Is there a chance that come July, we'll be seeing "Captain America" get "Fractioned"?

Brevoort: I would say that there is a better than average chance that when there's a Cap movie in theaters, we'll want to do something in publishing to give people exactly the same kind of entry point they had with "Invincible Iron Man" and now with "Mighty Thor." The Vegas oddsmakers would give you very good numbers on that.

One last big issue to hit, which I think is going to be a big point of conversation for the rest of the year is sales. DC had a very strong showing in December, splitting the market share with you guys in a way we don't often see. But overall, it feels like things are continuing to drop across the board. "Fear Itself" feels like Marvel's response to this trend, but what do you guys think you can do to help bolster the market as the industry leader?

Axel Alonso: In this market, people are looking for a blockbuster - a story with universe-spanning scope that affects all the characters they love. And we're going to give it to them.

Brevoort: We've definitely locked-and-loaded our 2011 publishing plan in a big way. And certainly DC had a big December, led by two or three of their top creators. They've done well at elevating a couple of their franchises. It's astonishing what Geoff's accomplished with "Green Lantern." He probably had a little help in that there's a movie on the way, but DC's taken that character, who was always a solid second-tier character, and made him feel really primary and important to the larger comic book audience in a way he's never been before. Now they have three or four Green Lantern titles that sell respectably. That's an accomplishment, no two ways about it.

I think one thing that caused us to get a little soft, particularly toward the end of 2010, is the fact that our editorial structure was so overtaxed and overextended. Dan [Buckley] and Joe [Quesada] have been pulled in a million different directions involving the movies and so forth. In their absence, Axel and I had stepped up to deal with the day-to-day stuff, but even then the crucial publishing decisions would come about more slowly, because Joe and Dan would need to weigh in and give their blessing on any major moves we'd need to make. We weren't able to be as quick on our feet and reactive as Marvel has traditionally been able to be. And that has everything to do with the shift in our editorial structure, with Axel becoming E-I-C. This will hopefully give Axel the authority necessary to get done with what the needs of publishing are without being jammed up waiting on the blessing or benediction of Dan or Joe for every move. Not to say those two won't still be involved, but as they're involved in a million other things, someone will still be here keeping a direct eye on the specific needs of Marvel Comics Publishing, the Direct Market, our readers and our creators - driving all that forward.

Axel, are there some specifics you can share with us about how you're approaching your job in terms of market share and keeping the Marvel name on top in 2011? Or if this is a better way to ask, what do you feel like you can do now to push the line forward you couldn't do last year?

Alonso: I feel very good about the months ahead. I think I'll feel even better after our next summit.

Brevoort: The second element to all of this is that we made a very well-intentioned choice a year and a half ago to step back away from doing big event comics. People had been complaining - readers, but also some retailers - about how they had "Event Fatigue" and burnout. So we decided to focus more on making each individual title its own event and launching some smaller events that were not inconsequential stories but were not nearly as all-pervasive in terms of tie-ins or as central to the whole Marvel U as "Secret Invasion." We stepped back from an aggressive publishing and marketing plan. I think the result of that has been that the guys still being aggressive are making in-roads. It's as simple as that. So we're taking another look. That doesn't mean we'll dive in whole hog and only do big events, but we'll be hitting all the columns down the line.

We've already seen that we're having some success. It's not out for a week or so yet, but I'm confident in saying that "Fantastic Four" #587 - the "Death Bag" issue - will be the best-selling comic in the market in January. That's a single issue of a single title that had a story that resonated with people and had an admittedly crass marketing gimmick that's galvanized people to come to the stores. Over in the Ultimate line, we've got "Death of Spider-Man" which is going to have some big Ultimate Universe-shattering effects which readers only have the barest hints of as of yet. And obviously, there's "Fear Itself," as well as some other things a bit further down the pike.

Alonso: Yes, "Fear Itself" is only the beginning.

For both of you overall, would you say that the other companies from DC and Image and Dark Horse down have been pushing back against you guys in a stronger way of late, or do you think that in many ways the market is Marvel's to succeed or fail in?

Alonso: Competition is good - for the market, for readers, and for us. It just motivates us to bring out our A-Game. If we do, we'll continue winning.

Brevoort: DC and Image and Dark Horse and everybody else being strong just means that there are more dollars and more people in the marketplace, and that's a good thing for everybody. We're hardly afraid of competition. In fact, we get a little bit worried when there isn't a certain level of competition, because at that point the industry stands or falls with Marvel, and that's a bit of a heavy burden to bear. So we couldn't be more delighted that DC is stepping up, and we'll feel just as delighted about trying to knock them back down a peg again.

Lastly, I know we had a lot of news to talk about this week, but I believe we're ending on one more about the future of this column, right?

Alonso: Indeed we are. I'm going to be a little more behind-the-scenes for a few weeks, drunk with pow-I mean, dealing with operational stuff .

Brevoort: We're still finalizing all of the details, but what it seems like this means is that we'll be shifting the emphasis of this weekly column beginning next week-including a clever new name that none of us have come up with yet! (So if any of your readers have any ideas...) I'll be doing most of the heavy lifting week-to-week, Axel will be making appearances as time permits, and we'll also be bringing in a regular rotating "guest chair" of some of the other creators, editors and Bullpenners behind-the-scenes that make Marvel what it is. And Joe will no doubt drop a Cup O' Joe from time to time as well, so that people don't forget who he is either.

Have some questions for Marvel T&A? 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 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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