TALK TO THE HAT: First Comics & Comeback Kids

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, Tom follows up on last week's internal Marvel Editorial meeting on first comics with the tale of his own "Secret Origin" and what he's learned from seeing junior staffers open up their own long boxes. Then, a discussion of franchise revitalization from "Runaways" to "Deadpool" takes fans inside how classic concepts and cult heroes are brought back into the light of day. Plus, Tom and X-Men editor Nick Lowe update fans on some of the favorite teens of the Marvel U. Read on!

Kiel Phegley: To kick this week off, I wanted to follow up on last week's talk where you had Marvel staffers bringing in their first issues. What was your first issue, Tom? What was the comic that you had as your example of what got you hooked?

Brevoort: Well, I didn't actually get to my example. We never start with me because I'm usually the most boring person in the room. But my first comic was "Superman" #268 -- a fairly inconsequential issue of "Superman." I got it when I was about six years old, bought it at a 7-Eleven. My dad was a habitual smoker back in the '70s, so he'd often stop off at a 7-Eleven for a pack of smokes, or a carton as the case may be. On this particular trip, for some reason -- I'd assume somebody was cleaning up a spill or something -- the comic rack that was normally towards the back of the store was up front right next to the door. That's a bad place to put a comic book spinner rack because it's so much easier for people to steal the comics that way. [Laughs] So that day, as we were waiting in line for smokes, the rack was there, and my Pop said, "You want a comic?" Sure, of course. What kid's not going to take something that's offered? So I very hastily scrutinized the rack -- and I can still remember other comics that were on that rack that time -- and I opted for what amounted to the safe choice.

There's nothing terribly noteworthy about "Superma"n #268. It was the first Superman/Batgirl team-up of all things, backed up by an "Amazing World of Krypton" story so forgettable that I have read it multiple times -- I even have a copy here at my desk right now that I reviewed last week in preparation for our meeting -- and I still can't recall it at all. [Laughter] It immediately erases itself from my mind every time I close the book. Well, other than the fact that Murphy Anderson drew it.

But that was my first toe in the pool, and after that I picked up other comics on a regular basis. I already was familiar with a bunch of the characters. In those days, the George Reeves Superman show played all the time, and the Batman TV show was in syndication, and the Spider-Man cartoon was running in the afternoons. So I had some understanding as to who and what these characters were but no real connection to the fact that they were based on comics until then.

As you went over all the first books with the staff, what about the discussion interested you, or what commonalities did you see in what got people hooked into comics?

Brevoort: Well, all the stories are different depending on the person, and all the stories are the same because you're talking about a similar experience. What was scary and sad from my point of view was that of the half dozen or so people in the meeting, all of them with the exception of one guy talked about comics that they'd picked up after I was already in the business. These were not "old comics" to me; they were new comics. Or at least they were something that had originated when I was around.

But their experiences tended to basically be very much the same. They'd come across a comic in their travels, see something in it that attracted them and pick it up to start reading. And fairly consistent, too, was the pattern that they'd read the books for a number of years, and then gradually fall out of it at a certain age. And they eventually came back into the fold again, later in life. It's very rare to find someone like me who never stopped reading comics. And even I had a period where I was reading very few of the mainstream books or the Marvel books. I think that's a natural part of growing up, and it was fairly universal.

The old chestnut of comics is, "every issue is someone's first issue," but how much do you think it's true that a lot of the comics you make are read by lapsed readers who might be coming back after a gap? Does that consideration change anything about your approach?

Brevoort: Well, I think that clarity never hurts. Clarity is the great equalizer. Something that's clear to a new reader will be clear to a lapsed reader will be clear to an established reader. The trick is to not be so heavy-handed with your clarity that the existing reader is bored. The example that Joe Q used to point to all the time -- and it's an example that was of its era and more about the collected edition experience versus the monthly comic experience -- was that in "Daredevil: Born Again," pretty much every issue opens exactly the same way. It had first person narrative captions telling you, "I'm Matt Murdock. I'm Daredevil. When I was a boy I got blinded by this radioactive material, and it gave me super-senses." Frank [Miller] would do that consistently in every issue as his lead-in. By the third page of every issue, while Matt was doing whatever he was doing, sleeping in some terrible alley because his home had been blown up by the Kingpin, he would lay out the 411. It was everything you needed to know to get you in. The difficulty was that when you read the story in its collected form, you wound up reading that same spiel over and over again, every twenty pages or so. And that's understandable, because in those days trade paperbacks didn't really exist. They weren't part of the business model.

It's one of the reasons we have the recap page now -- to put some of that repetitive information in a place where newer readers can find it while established readers can ignore it and go right into the story. We don't always get it 100% right, but that's the goal. Every recap page should give you the essential information and backstory needed to understand the issue you're about to read -- no more and no less. But it's incredibly easy to lose sight of this stuff. You're so focused on the story at hand, and everyone working on the book knows the details of that story and all the stories that came immediately before it. We're all intimately familiar with our own storytelling continuity, and it's easy to take it for granted that the readership is as well. That's part of the reason we have the reading circle: so that editors who don't normally work on a given series can provide some feedback as a reader. They can say, "I got this. I liked that. I didn't like that. This scene and its motivation didn't make sense to me. I like this sequence," or what have you. With luck, we're getting all the basic information across without being so heavy handed that people are banging their heads against the wall going "I know this story already!"

I honestly wish we'd do a little bit more. I think we've tended, in our increasing sophistication over the years, to shy away, as an industry, from some very fundamental essentials. Such as, if there's a character that's of any consequence in your comic, they should probably be named somewhere. But it's often a struggle when writers are trying to make their dialogue read naturalistically on the page. And we've eliminated a lot of the narrative devices, such as thought balloons, that allowed the writers of the past to insert some of this exposition. The audience these days, too, seems to have little patience for anything that feels expository to them, especially the long-time readers, so it's a valid concern. You can lay out the crucial information but lose the interest of your audience along the way. To some degree, the recap page is there to be a catch-all for that stuff. I tend to err on the side of wanting that basic information in the story as well as on the recap page, but that's my aesthetic as opposed to an overall Marvel one.

And I screw it up as much as anybody else, too. As it was pointed out to me in a Reading Circle a few months ago, in "Fear Itself Prologue: Book Of The Skull," nowhere in that comic book do the words "Captain America" appear. Cap is the star of that book, but we never name him once -- including on the recap page. And that's an absolute failure. Despite the fact that Cap's got a movie coming out and he's on Dunkin' Donuts cups and has commercials everywhere and posters and one-sheets, this makes the assumption that you already know who the guy in the stars and stripes is. In all honesty, probably 99.9% of the audience does know, but it doesn't hurt to think of that infinitesimal percentage and close the loop by saying "Captain America" in a Captain America comic. It's one of the things that we look out for in the reading circle every week.

Right now, we're in the thick of summer and event season, but we're also in the midst of a more subtle wave of comic releases. Every eight or ten months or so, we see a wave of new or relaunched titles hit from publishers. Marvel's last coordinated push was with the Heroic Age, but now we've got a new string of releases, including the Big Shots titles of "Moon Knight," "Daredevil" and "Punisher" as well as some other big name series more closely tied to "Fear Itself," like "Ghost Rider" and "Alpha Flight." I don't know if it's too early to tell, but are those stand alone book finding any sales success when they're being put out under that looser banner rather than as super crucial tie-in comics?

Brevoort: I think it's too early to tell. My instinct says that tying "Moon Knight," "Daredevil" and "Punisher" together as the Big Shots books will only help those titles. Of the three, "Moon Knight" is out now, but the other two haven't dropped yet, so it's premature to decide if the strategy worked or not. And the proof is in the pudding ultimately. How good are these books? I happen to think that all three are extremely strong and that people will like them. Hopefully, anyone who's brought to them thanks to the heightened platform that is Big Shots will find them satisfying.

The same kind of thing is true for books like "Ghost Rider" and "Alpha Flight" that are tied to "Fear Itself." Those series kick off tied directly to a big event, but hopefully they have enough of a voice or sensibility to attract a particular style of reader, whether it's a lapsed "Ghost Rider" or "Alpha Flight" fan or people who just think the idea of a guy with a flaming skull on a motorcycle is cool. Nothing much has changed since the last time we talked about this. It's still a tough marketplace out there. It's always going to be easier to get eyeballs on something that is connected to a larger event than something launched "virgin," for lack of a better term. There are just so many books -- Marvel's and everybody else's . The Previews catalogue is 700 pages every month. We all have to do anything we can to stand out from the pack and have a fighting chance for survival. Anything that can be done to give a prospective series a leg up -- assuming it doesn't distort the content of your book -- is probably worth doing.

Again, I long for a day when you could just launch "Alpha Flight" or "Punisher" and not worry about these things, but that's not the shape of the market we have now. Hopefully, things will turn around and it'll become easier in the future, but at the moment, these are still tough times for everybody. Everyone is fighting for dollars and shelf space. We want to give every book a shot for people to sample them, and once they have, it's down to the content of "Ghost Rider" or "Moon Knight" or "Daredevil" or whatever to bring them back next month for more issues.

Even the DC strategy of 52 #1s coming out all at once is one that I can only assume will help the books on the roster that are not the marquee releases. There's a collectability factor and a sense of event. There are so many titles that some series would have been lost in the shuffle if they'd been launched a month before or a month after, but they gain a little importance because they're involved in this massive uber-launch. Believe you me, I'm looking forward to the following month where I'm up against all #2s. That's a pretty good month from my point of view. [Laughs] October's going to be great! But really, the rising tide at helps all boats. Today, I think you need it more than you don't.

I was having a conversation with one of our creators recently as we were struggling to find a way to position a series we think is going to be pretty massive and crucial. The creative team on it is a pedigree creative team. They're a known quantity, and people come out to read the comics they do. So I told him, "Look, this is you with that artist. This ought to work." And he replied -- which I thought was on the money -- "I don't think the retailers are paying too much attention right now to who's doing what book. They're looking solely at their order forms, and basing their orders conservatively on the number of copies they sold last month. They're not taking a position on stuff because they can't afford to. So, does the fact that it's me and this artist excite readers? Maybe, but we need to get retailers to buy in to the fact that this series is genuinely important and critical to the readers." And I think he was right.

When we were doing our regular T&A chats with Axel, we'd talk every so often about lesser known or cult Marvel properties you two would look to launch in the line. After trying a few different takes on some familiar titles over the past couple of years, is there anything that jumps to mind that says "This is where we launched it right" or anything where you feel you really missed the window for a book somehow?

Brevoort: Offhand, I would say a particularly good example of something like this that didn't really come out of an event was the new "FF" series. That went off like clockwork, and the sales show it. For the first time in a long while, "FF" is planting sometimes two issues in a month in the top ten. That hasn't happened in years, but the combination of the "Three" storyline building good buzz for Jonathan [Hickman] and Steve Epting, the promotion of the death issue and its aftermath, and the relaunching and retitling of the book with Spider-Man on the team and Doom being there -- all of that combined to make people more interested than there were before. That's a case where I think things went well. And certainly, the response to "Death of Spider-Man" -- another bagged issue -- was really good, and hopefully that excitement will carry over to the new "Ultimate Spider-Man" and the "Ultimates" launch coming up.

Looking back, it's tougher to remember the misfires, in a sense, because the books that didn't take tend to fall away and get forgotten as we move on to new things. It's easier to remember the things that worked. I will say, I think there are a couple of properties and concepts we've got that could really explode and become perennials that we've let fall by the wayside. We're slowly and individually trying to get them back up and put the right creators on them to reestablish them as tentpoles. "FF" is one of them. People could argue that two years ago, "Fantastic Four" was a nostalgic favorite because it was Marvel's first book and it had history behind it, but it wasn't a preeminent franchise at that point. It had been very much eclipsed by "Avengers" and "X-Men" and "Spider-Man." And now, right at this moment, "FF" is selling really well again, and matters again.

I'm kind of struggling to come up with the thing you could point to that was tougher -- probably something like "Agents of Atlas." That was a series we all thought had a fun concept and a good hook, as well as a different flavor for Marvel. We tried to make a go of that series three different times: first as a limited series, then out of Dark Reign and finally in the Heroic Age. Yet somehow, we could just not get enough of an audience interested in that book. That's a case where we never quite hit it right. The audience just wasn't buying what we were selling. It doesn't mean we'll abandon the concept -- those characters are now in "Fear Itself: The Home Front" -- but we may need to wait for the time to be right to move those characters forward into something else.

I could argue that we missed a window on a "Young Avengers" ongoing series. We held the line for Allan [Heinberg] and Jim [Cheung] to come back and tell their story, and along the way we did a lot of limited series with the characters. We tossed around ideas for an ongoing and talked to some creators, but it never coalesced or seemed right. Maybe we would have been better off launching a "Young Avengers" series or continuing the one we had rather than holding off. That's all Monday morning quarterbacking to some degree, and I hold to the reason we waited: the reason people bought that comic was Allan and Jim. It wasn't as simple as putting another team on that property.

To use another example of that, "Runaways" has never been quite the same since Brian Vaughan finished his run and exited the building. A number of really talented creators went on to "Runaways" after that, but none of them seemed to catch the same spark and interest and electricity that Brian and Adrian Alphona and those guys did when they launched it, with the exception of a very well received run by Joss Whedon. That doesn't mean we're never going to do "Runaways" again. It just means we're going to have to go back to ground to figure how to cut back to the core of what made that series count at the outset when the time is right.

There were cases, too, going way back, where we gambled and we lost. In the early 2000s, we turned "Cable" and "Deadpool" into "Soldier X" and "Agent X" to try and spike more interest in and reinvigorate those properties. And it had the opposite effect. Those books were both dead 18 months later. Those were series that had lasted a good long while. And then we had to put them together in the "Cable & Deadpool" buddy book, which sold well enough but not spectacularly. Eventually, when we broke Deadpool out again, that character was able to explode in a major, massive way. You look at that and go, "Maybe if we wouldn't have done so much trying to plus it up, that book would have made it all the way through." [Laughs] On the other hand, maybe it going away out of the public eye made people more receptive to it when it did come back. So many of these things are after the fact guessing where you try your best to figure what happened. But there's no sure fire win, no matter how much it seems so.

Tom, I think some folks are going to be disappointed because for a second there it sounded like you were coming right up to saying, "On Runaways, as soon as we find someone else who can do that...you'll see the book in January!" But then you zigged away!

Brevoort: [Laughs] I don't think we're going to get to "Runaways" by January. I think we'll get to "Runaways" at some point, but we haven't found the right thing for it yet. But honestly in some ways -- and maybe this is me being more candid than I should -- I think the problem with "Runaways" may be that Brian ended the story. The concept of "Runaways" was about these kids discovering their parents were evil super villains, going on the run from them, and ultimately coming back to deal with them and their Gibborim masters. Once that was done -- and it sort of was -- it's difficult to figure out "What is it that these characters do that's different and distinctive from everyone else? If they're still Runaways, what are they running from?"

Again, I think a lot of people did some really good stories on "Runaways" after Brian, but on some level I think the problem was that the series had a premise, and by the time the original creators were done, that premise was concluded. That's what we struggle with now. We can tell another Runaways story tomorrow where they fight Doctor Octopus and deal with being disaffected teens, but in terms of being a series with legs that can go on for some time, you need more than that. It's something we haven't cracked yet. That doesn't mean we won't eventually, but we just haven't in the short term. That's a case where maybe we should've stopped after Brian and Adrian left -- the opposite of "Young Avengers"! But in retrospect, had we done it the other way, I might be sitting here now going, "We should have stopped 'Young Avengers' and continued 'Runaways.'" [Laughs] There's absolutely no way of knowing because it's all theoretical and abstract. But, and I say this based on what we so well here, we're going to make it work-- it's just a matter of the right spark between the right editors and creators.

Well, our first fan question this week hits right on this idea as Skaddix asked, "I was wondering if the Young Avengers are going to get a regular ongoing after 'Children's Crusade' ends?"

Brevoort: Sorry, Skaddix, but you're going to have to wait and see. Who can say if there'll even be a Young Avengers by the time we get to the conclusion of "Crusade?" I will tell you that not all of the Young Avengers characters make it through intact, so there are definitely some changes waiting in the wings.

And as a follow up in the same vein, Skaddix also shared this: "Also, will some of these FI tie-ins like the team Cho is setting up in "Home Front" or "Youth in Revolt" lead to new ongoings?"

Brevoort: Maaaaayyyyyyybe!

To keep on the teen theme this week, Fluffy6079 had a question in a similar mindset, but just different enough to warrant inclusion: "Since the cancellation of Avengers: the Initiative, I've really missed those characters. Fear Itself: Youth in Revolt has been a great revisiting of those guys. I know Avengers Academy was intended to sort of replace or be the next step of Avengers: the Initiative, but as good a book as it is, I still miss Avengers: the Initiative. Is there anything planned for these characters outside of Youth in Revolt?"

Brevoort: That's kind of the same question as Skaddix, Fluffy, so I don't know that I can tell you any more just now -- though I am happy that you feel such an attachment to the Initiative characters. That's a testament to the good work that Dan Slott, Christos Gage, Stefano Caselli and the rest did on that series. I find that it's often difficult to get new characters to really click in with fans, so it's encouraging to hear that it worked in this case for you. And Slott never wants to let go of any character he's written, so I'm sure he's got more ideas for the assorted Initiative kids knocking around in his brain somewhere.

Finally on this thread, Pixie mega-fan Agent_Torpor wanted to know: "Please let me know what role Pixie will play in the upcoming Schism mega-event and onwards."

Brevoort: Let's turn to X-Men Senior Editor Nick Lowe for the skinny on this one.

Nick Lowe: Hi Agent_Torpor! Pixie has a small but noticeable role in "Schism" and in "Generation Hope" and will be a main player in an X-Book come October and November. Here's a page from "Schism" with our favorite Welshwoman.

Thanks, Nick! And to wrap this week, I think we should mention to our regular readers that next week will be another of our ALL FAN Q&As! So if you've got a question for Tom or anyone in Marvel Editorial, head over to the boards and let 'em fly!

<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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