Strengthening Marvel's Secondary Lines

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, during a time when the Marvel line is seeing a number of changes, cancellations and new digital strategies hit the news, Axel speaks to Marvel's strategies for strengthening its line in comic shops and eReader devices and expounds on the best way to fight fan burnout and draw attention to titles outside Marvel's marquee comics. Below, the E-i-C gets into detail on what works and what doesn't work for new solo books like "Venom," "Hulk," "Scarlet Spider," "FF" and "Uncanny X-Force" while addressing how Marvel feels about recent cancelations, including "X-23" and one title you haven't heard about yet.

And when you're done reading this week's column, be sure to visit the CUP O' Q&A thread in CBR's Marvel Universe forum to submit questions for next week's all-fan Q&A, or e-mail CBR with your questions for Axel! Read on!

Kiel Phegley: Axel, there are two topics I thought pertinent to hit this week, and the first is Marvel's recent moves in digital. David Gabriel and Peter Phillips have spoken about some of the financial reasons and benefits behind things like expanded download codes in print books for the Ultimate line, the move to day-and-date and digital trades on the Barnes & Noble Nook but I wanted to get your take on how all these programs have affected Editorial if at all.

Axel Alonso: Our decisions for our first digital comics have been purely strategic and haven't affected content or the way that we make our comics. That said, we're well aware that digital comics provides new opportunities for storytelling that we intend to explore to the fullest. You'll see some of these come into play very soon, one of which I'm super-excited about.

Why do you think the Ultimate line has been the best test ground for digital moves? You've talked a lot about making those three books as cohesive as possible. Does that make them a kind of Petri dish or microcosm that you can gauge expectations for the whole line with?

Alonso: The scale and accessibility of the Ultimate Comics Universe was a factor in why we chose it as a testing ground. Also, we were betting that Miles Morales would be a lightning rod for attention -- and that the series wouldn't disappoint those who came to check it out. The response confirmed our instincts: "Ultimate Spider-Man" #1 set the record for downloads on the Marvel App.

One thing I think comics runs the risk of in times when sales dip low is burnout amongst the core readers, particularly in an era where publishers have to lean hard on concepts and characters that are viewed as being "sure things." Is that something you're concerned about - finding ways to engage not just new readers but the existing fans? What do you think Marvel has on tap that keeps things from feeling a bit stale?

Alonso: Throughout the years, I've encountered a number of industry people who posit there's a magic formula -- a mathematical equation -- to putting together a successful comic book. By their logic, once you determine what that equation is, all you have to do is duplicate it over and over and over. That kind of talk drives me crazy. We're not mass-producing rivets on an assembly line, we're creating stories that live and breathe over time. Yeah, certain characters and creators guarantee a baseline of interest in a title -- your "sure things," as you call them -- but there's no way to predict how they will perform long-term, just like there's no way to predict what the next breakout will be. Making comics is voodoo, it's alchemy -- it's about creative chemistry and timing and sometimes luck. Two plus two does not always equal four -- it can equal zero...or it can equal a hundred.

How do you keep things from getting stale? Don't be afraid to take chances. As Editor-in-Chief, it's my responsibility is to make sure that publishing hits its numbers -- that we give the fans enough of what they want -- and you can't do that without taking risks. Some of those risks come in the main-line titles -- like resurrecting Bucky or killing [Ultimate Comics] Peter Parker and replacing him with Miles Morales. Some come when you roll the dice on a new character -- like Hit-Monkey or Raizo Toro or publish an offbeat anthology like "Strange Adventures."

But the first phase of a publishing plan is determining what your tent-poles will be -- what projects will drive people into stores and get people buzzing about the year ahead. A few weeks ago, we released a little teaser that got people buzzing:

Very soon, we're going to reveal all. Three simple words that speak to the hardcore Marvel fan and the guy or gal on the street who's seen one or two super hero movies.

You curbing a success in terms of a certain amount of market voodoo is interesting because the second big thing I wanted to talk about was the characters that have found a way to build some momentum at Marvel over the past few years. It seems like there are a couple of characters growing out of the core franchises who have been given enough of a spin to draw their own interest. For example, in the '90s, or even five years ago, there were a lot of Spider-Man monthlies, but they'd all star Peter Parker. One book would show what he does on a Tuesday, another what he's up to on a Wednesday. Right now, there are Spider-Man titles, but things like "Venom" or "Ultimate Spider-Man" or, one would assume, "Scarlet Spider" coming up are much more solo books within Peter's world or concept. What's been your take on that trend?

Alonso: What you're seeing right now, under the guidance of [Senior Editor] Steve Wacker, is a renaissance of the Spider-Man line, anchored by Dan Slott's stellar work on core title ["Amazing Spider-Man"], which ships twice a month due and enjoys rising sales in a very tough market. "Avenging Spider-Man" debuted this month to incredible sales, largely because of the pedigree of its team [Zeb Wells and Joe Madueira]. "Venom" continues to sell strong. And the upcoming "Scarlet Spider" won't disappoint.

And over in the Ultimate Comics Universe, Miles Morales continues to gain fans. I was just talking with Brian [Bendis] about a story he's about to write that everyone will be talking about next year. Everyone. Quote me on that.

Looking across the various lines whether it be the Spider-Man group or the X-Men group, is your priority to discuss the status of the flagship in terms of how it sets a tone for all the other series be that "Amazing" or "Uncanny X-Men" or what have you? Do you have to nail down that big book before you can confidently do spinoffs?

Alonso: Absolutely. Every franchise starts with the core title. "Uncanny X-Men" is, and always will be, X-Men Central. While the event series "Schism" tore the X-Men into two groups - "Uncanny X-Men," led by Cyclops, and its sister title, "Wolverine And The X-Men," led by Wolverine -- the seeds were sowed primarily in "Uncanny" and it re-launched as the core title last month. Ditto for "Amazing Spider-Man" and "Avengers" -- core titles that drive their respective franchises. Quality "sister titles" will grow out of them -- "Uncanny X-Force" or "Secret Avengers," for instance -- but the core titles quarterback their lines.

The other spinoff that comes to mind that a lot of people will be looking at is "FF." The Fantastic Four franchise has been doing quite well since Jonathan Hickman came on, and although "FF" has been the flagship since the death of the Human Torch, but it's been a twist on what we expect from a Fantastic Four book. With the main title returning next week in issue #600, what does that mean for "FF" as a sister title? How do you expect those two series to play off each other?

Alonso: "FF" grew out of events in the core title, "Fantastic Four" -- and since Jonathan writes both, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict no coordination problems! [Laughs] Jonathan steers both ships so he can determine what significant moments will appear in each book -- and let me tell you, he has big stuff planned for each. He's got notebooks filled with stuff that will blow your mind.

It all boils down to good communication, with the editor at the center. "Wolverine and the X-Men" grew out of events that began in "Uncanny X-Men," but Jason [Aaron] was there at the planning stages and wrote "Schism," the event that established the split, so he's got great optics on what stories he can tell.

And do you think that writers and Editors view the sister titles as a place to play more with expectations? Since they're not the flagship, can they be more daring or experimental?

Alonso: There's a bit less pressure [writing a sister title] because you have the latitude to tell a story that takes place during a specific moment in time -- say, Tuesday -- while the writer of the core title tells the story that encompasses the rest of the week. I mean, anyone who works on an X-Men title knows that "Uncanny" requires a lot more planning; its stories almost always have a ripple effect on the X-Men universe if not the larger Marvel U. Ditto for "Avengers," "Amazing Spider-Man," "Captain America"...

Of course, the challenge -- the goal -- of writing a "sister title" is to make a complementary read into an essential read, the way that Rick Remender, Jerome [Opena], Esad [Ribic] and others did with "Uncanny X-Force" or Christos Gage is doing with "Avengers Academy." And I like Chris Yost and Ryan Stegman's odds with "Scarlet Spider."

And sometimes books grow out from under the shadow of those series, like "Daken" or "Hulk" with the Red Hulk in the lead, both of which have been running a while now. Do you think it makes it easier for those to get a foothold when you take the core title and core hero out of the picture for a spell? Is that a strategy you feel has worked well.

Alonso: Daken and Red Hulk absolutely benefitted from their stints anchoring core titles. Fans got to know them, love them. In the case of Thor, who was out of the picture for years, it just sorta happened. We were patient about bringing him back, his absence made fans' hearts grow fonder and when we did bring him back, JMS [J. Michael Straczynski] and Olivier [Coipel] delivered in spades, which made for a huge launch after a three-year-plus hiatus. [pauses a beat] It's hard to believe that he was off the stands that long.

So we've discussed briefly a lot of the books that have come into their own over the past few years -- "Venom," "Uncanny X-Force," "Daken," "Hulk" or "FF." What smaller titles do you hope can make a splash in a similar way moving forward, whether they launch as sister titles or via events or via character absences?

Alonso: As I've said before, I'm very excited about our plans for Nova -- look for him to explode in 2012. Ditto for Hawkeye -- look for him to have an amped-up role in the Secret Avengers and the Avengers. And look for Ant-Man, one of my personal favorites and one of the least appreciated super heroes out there, to get, uhm, bigger. How we platform each, I won't divulge, but I'll remind Nova fans to check out Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuiness's "Point One" story for their first glimpse of him and a prologue to next year's biggest story.

There have been a few cancelations hitting the news of late on this front as well from "X-23 and a number of other titles. Is there a takeaway you can give fans about that news? Is it expected that some of these ideas have a shorter run and then go back into the drawer?

Alonso: It's always disappointing when a title comes to an end. I'll bet everyone reading this column still mourns the death of a title or two they loved -- and wonder why the book didn't stick. And I guarantee you that as frustrated as a fan might be, there's a writer, artist and an editor who are even more disappointed. That's just the way things go sometimes. The market won't support it.

That said, I'm proud of X-23's run. Two successful limited series and an ongoing series ain't bad. Ditto for Daken [who is also ending his series.] From a supporting role in "Wolverine: Origins" to the lead of ongoing series that included him slicing Frank Castle to bits -- enter Franken-Castle. Both were characters that gained traction in a market that, well, doesn't really have a great track record of supporting new stuff. And both characters anchored legitimate monthly titles. We don't do R&D at Marvel. We'll stick by a title for a while -- like we did with "Spider-Girl" -- but there comes a point where that title has to earn, usually sooner than later.

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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