TALK TO THE HAT: "Fear Itself" Fallout, OGNs & Marvel's Future

When it's time to make the big decisions on the nuts and bolts creation of Marvel Comics, people have to Talk to the Hat.

An outstanding industry vet and fashion forward editor, Marvel SVP of Publishing Tom Brevoort is back on CBR News for Marvel's TALK TO THE HAT. Our latest weekly look inside the minds at Marvel spotlights Tom along with his signature pork pie and loads of comics news, views and discussion. Anchored by regular question and answer rounds with the denizens of the CBR Message Boards, each week Brevoort will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and new interactive features.

This week, with Comic-Con International in San Diego at an end and a ton of Marvel news having hit during the show, Tom reveals the goings on that led to the Season One graphic novel line, explains why "Battle Scars" is a necessary follow up to the action of "Fear Itself" and details what comes next for the Marvel U in "Point One." Plus, Matt Fraction stops by to share a look into the future of "Mighty Thor," Tom debuts a new feature within the column and we prepare for an "Ultimate" special guest for next week. Read on!

Kiel Phegley: Tom, there's a lot of news that hit from Marvel over the week of San Diego, but the thing that really stands out as a new kind of project is the Season One line of graphic novels. In the past, I'd spoken to Joe Q about OGNs at Marvel, and he was pretty adamant that doing projects like this didn't make sense on financial grounds alone. The argument there was that it wasn't cost effective to release anything that wasn't serialized as single issues first. What's changed between now and then that makes these graphic novels a viable storytelling format at Marvel?

Tom Brevoort: Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to give you the full picture of this because some of the information is still proprietary. But the long and the short of it is that we've got ancillary revenue streams for the Season One projects, and that's what makes it work in this case. We haven't announced everything we're going to do with these yet, and these ancillary uses don't necessarily have anything to do with the direct market, but it's a particular set of circumstances that allows us in this case to print these books first as OGNs and not start with a serialized format. And if they do well, there may be more things like this. We live in an evolving world where suddenly new opportunities open to us - whether those opportunities are in the digital landscape or things that being a part of Disney opens up to us, or what have you.

The landscape is constantly changing, and what might have been a hard and fast rule a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago doesn't necessarily stay that way forever. Certainly 15 or 20 years ago, people would have called you crazy if you said, "One day, 90 to 100% of your publishing line will be collected in hardcovers and trade paperbacks and sold in bookstores" or "Your books will routinely be sold on computers directly to people who can read comics on their phones." They'd say, "That's crazy! This is madness! There's no model for that" -- until there is. Now the technology has evolved so that a particular set of opportunities has opened up.

But unfortunately I can't tell you what those opportunities are yet! [Laughter] So I can't prove my case, and you'll just have to trust me that we are being financially responsible with them. And whether or not we succeed or fail, you can enjoy these fine stories in their original graphic novel format.

Reading some of the quotes you gave in the USA Today story that announced this, I feel a bit like there's an admission in there that we've reached a point where there are multiple markets for comics and multiple factions of comic readers now. Usually, we hear that there's the core fanbase in the Direct Market and things like trades and digital sales are really just an ancillary revenue stream of that same group of people. Season One seems like you're saying, "We're selling this to a new group of people than we've ever sold to before." Do you feel like that's the case, and what shows you that you've got a willing audience out there?

Brevoort: I think we're certainly going to try. I think over the years we've tried to expand into different marketplaces and to reach different audiences with fairly consistently. It's the reason we pursue such assorted projects as "Anita Blake" or "Dark Tower" or "Halo" or "Oz."

The Direct Market is a wonderful thing, and it's really almost magical. It's the envy of the publishing world. Every other publisher in every other category looks at it longingly because they exist in a world where their product is returnable, whether that's in bookstores or on magazine racks. They don't have the kind of dedicated and fervent fanbase that Marvel has, nor an entire infrastructure that buys the product ahead of time on a non-returnable basis and guarantees you a sale. The Direct Market is a wonderful thing for all that the would-be pundits like to trash it. "It signaled the end of comics as a mass-medium! It destroyed everything, and there are no kids coming into the stores!" It's not like there's absolutely no truth to that because there was a shift from the newsstand model at the end of the '70s and into the '80s, but it was a shift that allowed comics to survive and indeed to thrive in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I really don't think that the comic book as it exists today would be around if the Direct Market had not evolved. We would have died out around 1982 or so.

When we first got together with assorted divisions of Disney, our guys would explain how our business works, and they were astonished and flabbergasted that this structure existed that allowed you to sell to this audience in a direct manner on a non-returnable basis. And this is Disney! Disney knows every angle there is. Disney is the kings of getting their material out in front of the widest possible audience you can imagine and in turning their characters and properties into household names. It was like we'd done a little magic trick in front of them. "Oh, my gosh! I can't believe that!" So that's really to be valued.

But that having been said, that's not all the end-all, be-all of the world. There is a huge world outside of our Direct Market, and as much as we can, we try to reach that world. That's what a lot of our digital outreach is about, whether it be the MDCU or the Marvel App. Any time we do promotional tie-ins or custom comics, it's the same thing. We just did one for Williams-Sonoma -- the food folks -- that was a custom publishing thing, and there're thousands of copies of that being distributed or you can read it online). Our latest comic for AAFES with the US Armed Forces has a print run of a million copies, and will be available on military bases around the world. And that's a great thing. So long as the content is good and interesting, there's the possibility, the chance, the hope that these things can bring people into our universe.

Our Direct Market audience is still our bedrock and our backbone. There's no two ways about it. We need to support it, we need to keep it strong, and we need to make it thrive. And part of the way we can make it thrive is to reach out beyond it and pull more and more people into its orbit. Assuming that we're able to hook them, they'll find their way to that marketplace. It's inevitable. That's exactly how it worked for me as a reader. I was buying comics at 7-Elevens and candy stores and card stores in the 70s until such a time as a comic shop opened up within bike-riding distance of where I lived. And from that moment on, I was in the comic shop, because they got the books in earlier and in much better shape so I was guaranteed that they were going to have what I was looking for. That feeder market into the main market is traditionally how all this stuff works. So it's not a case ever of wanting one over the other. We're greedy. We want all of them! [Laughs] But all the markets can work synergistically together to funnel the people that are the most into what we do into that main Direct Market pipeline.

I'm not sure I've completely answered the question you asked, but the short version is yes. With the Season Ones, we see an opportunity to go outside of our normal sphere of dedicated, hardcore readers and hopefully connect with some people who are not regular readers of what we do. But if we do our jobs well, maybe they'll become regular readers. Or maybe they'll be irregular readers who just pick up a trade paperback now and then. Every little bit helps. But our expectation is that they will be useful and valuable for an audience who's not as steeped in what we do. And promoting them off of Marvel's 50th anniversary is a way to either invite people back to some characters they once knew and were involved with or characters they've vaguely heard of but don't know where to start.

That's actually one of the issues I've seen a number of times - most recently and particularly at my FormSpring page. The week after "Captain America" hit, I got a bunch of questions from people saying, "I liked 'Thor.' I liked 'Captain America' and 'X-Men: First Class.' I'm thinking about reading comics...where should I start?" And on some level, I think, "What a crazy question. You should be able to start wherever you want. Just pick up a book and go." But for somebody on the outside looking in, seeing the sheer number of titles we publish and all the versions of the characters, all the stuff going on - not being familiar with any of it can make it intimidating and daunting. They just don't know where to put their first footstep. And that confusion paralyzes them. It keeps them from making a leap into trying something they might really like. So that's what Season One is about too -- giving readers new and old a nice, easy entry point into our world and our characters, whether they've read about them before or not. It's not our sole motivation, but the timing is great right now with "Cap" in the media spotlight because people are showing up and asking, "Where do I begin?"

On the creative side, what was the in for how these books would be plotted out? Season One is a broad kind of term in some respects. And how did you put together the creative team? Because it seems like, all other things aside, you've tapped a few folks like Antony Johnston and Cullen Bunn who have experience writing OGNs for publisher like Oni Press.

Brevoort: In terms of the talent, although we didn't specifically go out to get "OGN guys," it is fortuitous that we have a few guys working on these volumes that have worked in this format before. Rather, we were, in essence, looking for new, young voices -- guys who hadn't done a whole lot of Marvel work (at least at the time they started on these, Roberto Saccasa being the one exception) but who had done other quality work and who might bring a 21st Century sensibility to these stories.

In terms of the overall marching orders on the Season Ones - and this came out of conversations I had with David Gabriel, who was instrumental in coming up with these, and a few other people - we looked at these as summations of the first five issues or so of any given character's title or history. That's not a hard and fast rule. Each book will cover a slightly different length of time depending upon the character and the overall story being told. But that's the approximate idea. These aren't just another retelling of the origins, which we've seen a million times, but a recounting of the earliest days when these characters put their footprint down in the Marvel universe. Simultaneously, we wanted these to be stories unto themselves rather than just a Marvel Saga of a bunch of old comic books. And if you'd read the original books 50 years ago, there'd still be stuff to entertain you. The stories are updated and contemporized in a way that doesn't lose the core of them. That is to say, it's tough to do a story set in 2011 in which people don't have cell phones, which is sort of a ridiculous thing to say. But to point to a completely different genre, in suspense fiction if people have cell phones, the game changes completely -- it's tough to be stranded at a secluded cabin if everybody can text or call. So you need to be aware of that. So these needed to be updated to a world of 2011 rather than of 1962.

But most of all, the thing we wanted these to be like were the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale color books: "Daredevil: Yellow" and "Spider-Man: Blue" and "Hulk: Gray" -- all of which fit this model. Not all of those were set during the earliest issues - "Spider-Man: Blue" in particular was set during John Romita's run on the book, but in the course of those six issues, it recapped and remixed a whole bunch of Spidey stories from that era while focusing on and fleshing out how Peter and Gwen Stacy became a couple. So it's a story where if you've never read any of the old Stan and Johnny comics, you can still get involved in this romance between Pete and Gwen and the love triangle with MJ and Harry. If you happen to know more, you can look at it and go "That's very nostalgic. I remember that story where he fought Kraven" and so forth. But the source material has been revised and remixed so the story functions of a piece here rather than as six or eight monthly comics in the '60s. That's exactly the kind of thing we laid out to people doing Season One books. Of the initial four that we're doing, they're all going to be slightly different depending on the tastes and sensibilities of the folks involved. Different creators may choose to focus on the origin or the actual first issue in greater depth, or they may want to go equal across the first couple and let events slide and slosh around. But that's what we started with -- the first few issues and not just origin stories -- with a prerequisite of Marvel excitement and adventure and something that was new yet familiar to longtime readers and engaging and exciting to newer fans.

Shifting gears, another piece of the San Diego news was the big plans for post-"Fear Itself." There was a lot of news on this front, but the big one was "Battle Scars" as an overall branding. It's hard to talk about the particulars of this since we're waiting to see how Fraction and Immonen wrap the series, but in general, do you go looking for a way to keep the books cohering after a big event like this, or most of the time is it just a natural reaction to doing an event -- like you've said in the past -- that makes some significant change?

Brevoort: Typically, we go into any of these events knowing where we're coming out. That's one of the most important aspects of building these stories. Before we being work on the actual book, we know where things are going to end up, and we know what the fallout will be. Some of that sometimes shifts a little bit as you get deeper into your story. But quite often - and I know this has been the case for Joe Q a number of times -- we're more excited about where the event story is leading us and what happens after than we are in the event story proper. Going into "Fear Itself" we knew more or less where we were going with the characters and where they'd all end up, so this is a fairly natural extension. "Fear Itself" is still a story with a beginning, middle and an end - and it does end -- but the fallout from that ending will spring you forward into any number of titles. Some of them are the ongoing books. There will be fallout in "Captain America" -- there almost can't not be given that Bucky is dead and Steve is now Cap again. There will be fallout for tons of other characters like the fact that Iron Man has taken a drink of alcohol to appease Odin. That's not something that can just go away after "Fear Itself." That has to play out in "Iron Man." And there are other elements and aspects that can become their own projects and stories set in the Marvel Universe that will be featured in things like "Battle Scars" and "The Fearless" and these other books that tend to spin out like "Defenders" or the Jason Aaron/Marc Silvestri "Hulk."

And all the creators on the other series -- the main, core monthly book -- are all involved in these discussion as we're talking about them. Certainly Matt's involved in the "Thor" and "Iron Man" discussions! [Laughs] And Ed was involved in all the "Cap" stuff and Brian in all the "Avengers" stuff. They were there to discuss how "Fear Itself" would end, and they had the chance to say, "We could do this" or "What if we ended up here, and it allowed me to tell this story?" We tend to build that stuff from the framework up, so before there's even a first issue, there's an outline for the whole series so we know where to go next. That's almost job #1. If you try to figure out your spinoffs and aftemaths once you're into it, you're not really doing it right.

Some books launch directly out of the Marvel U, and some seem to be ones you've been playing with for a while. You and Axel and I spoke for a while about finding the right way to launch some old properties so they had the most impact, and I can't help but think of those discussions when I now hear there's a new Defenders book coming up. Moreover, the panel at San Diego played up a mystery character coming to "Fear Itself Aftermath: Battle Scars" who fans were promised they'd recognize the significance of as soon as they saw him. Does an event like "Fear Itself" give you the best spot to fold some of those ongoing revitalizations back into things?

Brevoort: Certainly as we've said before, it's easier to launch things out of a big event that people are paying attention to. I guess we talked about this 18 months or so ago when Axel and I were talking about various properties in the Marvel back catalogue that we thought had some legs if we could find ways to really get to the core of them and launch them well. "Defenders" is certainly an example of that. We believe that given the history of the Defenders and the characters involved and the pedigree of that title, it could be a strong, perennial series in the Marvel publishing line like an "Avengers" or an "X-Men" or a "Fantastic Four." "Defenders" has that history, but for some reason it eventually ran its course in the '80s and despite a few good attempts to bring it back, we've never quite hit it right. So in trying to find a way to launch it well, you've got to first find a creative team that gets it, and then you need to get down into the engine of what makes Defenders distinct and special and how you can make all those elements come together and coalesce. We think we've done that.

Certainly, coming out with Matt and Terry Dodson, which is an A-list creative team, should send the message that we're serious about "Defenders" and making it an important, lasting series. And coming out of "Fear Itself," since Matt is writing both, you can tell that segue is going to be pretty smooth. It's not the sort of situation where to read "Defenders" #1 you absolutely have to have read "Fear Itself" #1 through 7. And it's not that if you're read "Fear Itself" #1 through 7, you absolutely have to read "Defenders." It's just that hopefully you'll be interested enough by the end of "Fear Itself" to go into "Defenders" and get on board with it. The same is true of "Battle Scars" and "Incredible Hulk" and "The Fearless" and all the other things we're rolling out of this.

So yes, it's always easier to get a buy in if you're connected to the center of what's going on in publishing -- if people feel that it's important and it's something they can't live without. We try to leverage that as much as we can...in ways that make sense. There's no reason to launch a project out of another story if the pieces don't fit or if the thing you've put your finger on about that property gets too twisted up trying to fit in with the larger super-story you're spinning out of. We try to avoid that, but this is still the best entry point to get people to hazard a look at a book like "Defenders."

The last big piece of San Diego news - and this is something my initial report got confused on, which I apologize for -- is a one-shot called "Marvel Point One." And if I'm not understanding this right, it's a single issue that you're using to launch a bunch of the big ideas that will lead into the 2012 event?

Brevoort: Right. I'm glad you brought this up because it did get covered erroneously in a few places, and I wasn't sure if that was the coverage or what our guys said on the panel, but there was a disconnect somewhere. But yes, we are doing a one-shot in November literally called "Point One," and we've been describing it internally as "our Rosetta Stone to the future." Not just in terms of saying, "We have a big event coming next year, and here's stuff leading up to it," but instead in teeing several different initiatives up -- some short term, some longer term. Some series that are going to be launching and some big storylines that are going to be taking place in major titles.

So it's your one-stop shopping glimpse into the next year of Marvel. In a way, it's almost like the big time board we did in "Avengers" #5, but instead of a big chart in Tony Stark's cave, it's a big thick comic filled with stories by a number of creators. All the stories in "Point One" are completely new. They're not excerpts from upcoming issues or little previews of things. They're completely new stories being done for this one-shot by a bevy of our top creators. I can tell you that one of the stories is Matt and Terry setting up a bridge from "Fear Itself" into "Defenders," but there are a number of other high level, strong pedigree teams setting up things for the future in this book. There will be a wraparound that contextualizes what all these stories mean for the future.

It will harken back to what I think the Annuals used to be when everybody remembers them as being so great -- the big special issue that would come out and blow your mind with all the craziness in it. That's our goal with "Point One." It is literally the first point in the next year or 18 months of Marvel publishing. You can start here and experience a lot of stuff that give you a glimpse of what's coming and will hopefully energize you into following assorted Marvel titles and the Marvel line as a whole moving into 2012 and beyond.

On fan questions this week, let's start with boberto who had a question about a Marvel announcement that's not directly tied to storylines: a day-and-date digital push for the Spider-Man and X-Men titles. He asked, "Now that Marvel is transitioning to same-day digital comics, what are the chances of getting an Android app sometime in the near future? Should the facts that Marvel has just put out a Captain America game on the Android Market, as well as a live wallpaper, and that Marvel Pinball is forthcoming on the platform be viewed as signs that Marvel will embrace Android more fully in the future?"

Brevoort: This seems to me like a question for our Senior Vice President and General Manager, Digital Media Group, Peter Phillips:

Phillips:Let's just say Marvel always listens to its fans and makes their requests of the highest priority.  So stay tuned

Eagle-eyed as always, Spidey616 wondered, "Before 'Cable Reborn' by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness was announced, they had another project teased called 'Avengers Three.' With the McGuinness drawn Avengers Three promo image being used as a variant for 'Fear Itself' #6 I was curious if the project was still in the works?"

Brevoort: I'm afraid that Avengers Three has been tabled for the time being, Spidey. As we got underway with FEAR ITSELF, there were certain elements of the story that overlapped what Jeph and Ed were planning on playing with in their project, and so they decided to switch gears and work on something else instead -- CABLE REBORN. I should probably also mention that CABLE REBORN isn't actually the title of the project they're doing, it's just the small tip of the iceberg that we can tell you about at this point. The full title will be revealed in a few months' time -- and there'll be some additional information in the POINT ONE one-shot, which also features a story by Jeph and Ed that isn't about Cable at all...

Yaggi_Rck has been thinking of another side of Thor as he asked, "What happened to Donald Blake? He played a big role in Straczynski's run and appeared briefly in Fraction's 'Thor' #615. I know that right now there's 'Fear Itself' and the Galactus story to deal with in the Thor titles, but will we see the character appear again? Has his disappeareance have anything to do with the fact that he wasn't included in the movie?"

Brevoort: Yaggi, for you I went right to the horse's mouth and asked MIGHTY THOR writer Matt Fraction:

Fraction: I just didn't have room for the guy, is the sad and simple truth, as things in THOR have been pretty over-the-top busy for the Asgardians. In "Fear Itself" the voice of the human folk are heard elsewhere and in "The Galactus Seed" the voice of the regular man is pretty well served by Pastor Mike and his ilk I thought. Anyway I just plain didn't have the space to give to the characters.

I've not written Jane, either, who was the second lead in the film so the movie's got nothing to do with it.

That said, Jane shows up next in "Shattered Heroes: Thor" and then I just yesterday wrote a Jane and Don scene that'll be in "The Might Thor" #8. Jane, Don, and Erik all have a big part in the story that comes next. 

Lastly, we're going to try out a new segment of the column this week where Tom takes some time to pontificate on the industry at large in a segment we call...well, who knows?? Maybe the boards have a good idea. Take it away, Tom!

Brevoort: Well, first off, I wanted to call this section "Coast-To-Coast Big Mouth". But, as usual, nobody would listen to me. But the idea is just to have a place where I can spout off about something going on in or around the industry, some issue, something in the zeitgeist -- and in all likelihood get a lot of people upset with me.

This time up, I wanted to speak about a strange and particularly self-destructive streak that our industry and fanbase seems to have, wherein we're all too quick and gleeful in predicting our own demise. This thought was sparked by the fact that there was a panel at the San Diego Comic-Con about how the traditional comic book is dying out. Now, I wasn't at SDCC, and I wasn't at the panel, so I don't know what precisely was said there. But it is indicative of a certain gleeful cynicism that a lot of folks in and around our hobby like to indulge in. And I don't really get it. First off, why do people delight in prognosticating the end of our industry? Whether you like every single comic that's being put out, you like at least the idea of comics, I would think, if you're involved to this degree. And it's always been a way to buoy up a weak argument about why something you don't like is bad: "This is a prime example of why the comics industry is doomed!" Secondly, I've been hearing people predicting the death of the comics industry since the day I bought my first comic. As Steve Wacker has quipped: "Comics: Dying since 1935!" The fact of the matter is that, despite all of the down times and hardships and reversals of fortune that this business has experienced over the years, comics have always found a way to survive. And so there's no reason to believe that they won't do so again in this instance. The format and the packaging, even the delivery system may change, but there's every likelihood that the medium will survive. And while times are tough out there, things are not that bad for us! The overall acceptance of comics as a vibrant, vital, contributing part of popular culture has never been better. We own pop culture, own it! Yet somehow, we can't seem to get beyond our own insecurities and self-loathing to accept the new world order.

It doesn't take much imagination to predict the death of something. Everything dies, sooner or later. And if you bet on the same number for long enough, eventually it's likely to come up -- but that doesn't make it prophetic. So how's about we spend just a little bit less time talking about how and why we're all doomed, and spend a little more time enjoying and reveling in the wonderfulness of this medium that we all enjoy?

Well put, Tom. And before we wrap fully for the week, I wanted to note that next week we'll be inviting another special Marvel guest to the column -- "Ultimate Spider-Man" artist Sara Pichelli!! So for the fans on the boards out there, any and all questions for Sara are welcome!

<1>Have some questions for Marvel's Talk To The Hat? 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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