TALK TO THE HAT: Sara Pichelli's "Ultimate" Introduction

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 invites his latest special guest to the Hat proceedings in the form of acclaimed "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" artist Sara Pichelli! One of the newer faces gracing the pages of Marvel's monthly books, Pichelli's visibility skyrocketed last week as she teamed again with regular UItimate Spidey writer Brian Michael Bendis to introduce the new Spidey of the Ultimate U: Miles Morales! Below, Sara and Tom team up to talk about the character's introduction, what the response says both about the readership and the direction of comics moving forward, and the future of "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" as a whole. Plus, Marvel shares an exclusive first look at "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" #1. Read on!

Kiel Phegley: Well, Tom, it's been a very big week for Marvel from a news standpoint with the reveal of new Ultimate Spider-Man in the pages of "Ultimate Fallout," and we're happy to have the artist of that story riding shotgun on the column this week: Sara Pichelli!

Tom Brevoort: Welcome, Sara! We haven't worked much together, but Sara did do a story for the "I Am An Avenger" anthology series for my Associate Editor Lauren Sankovitch. And I think Sara's a real breakout talent. There are three or four artists we've got at Marvel who are really starting to pop and sizzle and define a new look and style that's distinctly their own. We look at these people as being the next generation of Marvel superstars, and I think Sara is clearly one of them. Her stuff is bubbly and fun and alive and energetic and exciting. It has all the best traits and qualities of humanity and engaging-ness -- I'm not sure that's really a word -- that I'd want in a Marvel artist. I think she's going to become as associated with "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" and Miles Morales as Mark Bagley was with Spider-Man and Peter Parker. I think she's a top talent primed to explode in a major way, and hopefully this story does just that.

Sara, I wanted to start talking with you about your comics career in general. If some of our readers don't know, you work from your home in Italy, which even in the modern world of e-commuting is a rare feat for an American superhero artist. What were the early influences and interests that brought you into this world, and how did you initially make you way to working for Marvel?

Sara Pichelli: I have to admit, drawing Spider-Man in my old-fashioned house back in Rome feels a bit strange. My place however, does have something in common with Spidey -- WEBS! Jokes aside, I spent some time in animation before I started my career as a comic artist (as storyboard artist, animator, character designer, etc.), but it wasn't really for me. I felt like a tiny cog in a machine, which was affecting my artistic ego. [Laughs]

Back then, I wasn't into comics, but I really liked animated movies and anime. It was only after meeting my boyfriend, David Messina (who's also a comic book artist), that I started reading comic books and really enjoying them. In some ways he's been my personal trainer for comic books! Or, as I used to call him, my personal ghost-nerd!

I started as his assistant at IDW, and then in 2008 I submitted work for the Chesterquest talent search -- and beating all expectations, I was a finalist! Once in a while I'll look at the amateur stuff I sent and I thank C.B. Cebulski for having so much confidence in me!

And that's how I started working for Marvel!

When you initially came on to "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man," people were very taken with your sense of fashion and design as well as your character work, which seemed a great match for Bendis' dialogue-driven teenage stories. What do you think are the most important element of the "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" series as a whole, and are there ways that Miles' adventures will be significantly different from the way you did Peter's?

Pichelli: My passion fashion design comes from my background as a character designer. It's a major thing that defines the strength of a story's character. Every character needs to be recognizable through his or her specific personality and body language. Personally, I can say that details are the most important element in the "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" series, too. How I made Peter talk, move, smile and speak with his friends and girls is different from how I make Miles do those things. My goal is to create a character (and his world) naturally different from what they've seen before. I want readers to grow fond of Miles and his world without the necessity of comparing them to what came before. I don't want to draw Miles acting like Peter. To put it simply, the reader doesn't need a new girlfriend who looks like the previous one -- he should find someone he can love for who she is.

A lot of the story ideas that led to Peter's death and Miles' introduction were dreamed up at Marvel retreats with the writers. When was the first you remember being told you'd be working on this story, and what was your first reaction to the idea of building a new Spider-Man out of a minority background?

Pichelli: Marvel first asked me to be a rotating artist on UCSM with David LaFuente, and shortly after, they told me about this new idea. In practice, I knew about the death of Peter Parker and the new Spider-Man idea at the same time -- I was shocked! Additionally, Brian wanted to talk with me about the new "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man!" Can you imagine? I felt like a girl who just passed the road test driving a Ferrari! I'll be honest -- I panicked -- I was already picturing a horde of "USCM" fans anxious to break my right hand!

But after a bit of autogen training, I wrote Marvel a confident e-mail accepting the great offer.

After the initial shock surrounding the new project, I realized how important all of this has been. Marvel was giving me a great opportunity, and the great honor to work with Brian Bendis on a project that marks a turning point in comic book history. Building a new Spider-Man out of a minority background? I couldn't wait to read that book! This is what I call social evolution, man!

Let's talk about Miles' design! First up, we know that you and Joe Quesada bounced ideas back and forth on how the final costume should look. What were the most important visual elements you wanted in his Spidey uniform? Beyond that, you're establishing a look for Miles as a person all his own. We know that Bendis has spoken about being inspired in part by Donald Glover. Did you look to anyone from real life in designing Miles' face and physical appearance?

Pichelli: I recall endless e-mail exchanges between Joe, myself and Ultimate Editors Mark Paniccia and Sana Amanat over the design of the new costume!I guess everyone felt the huge responsibility surrounding the project - every detail was important. In my opinion however, the most important visual element of the suit was the black. The combination of red and black stayed consistent throughout the entire creative process. Initially, the idea was to create a costume that was similar to the original one. I thought they didn't want me to come up with something too different, but slowly that idea changed. At one point, the webbing even disappeared, and we put lines on the legs and arms. Or there was a version that was mostly black, with just with few red elements. I really wanted to leave the costumes black in the lower part of the body (no belt and no boots), because it gave the figure a more aggressive look. I figured that Spider-Man has to wall crawl without drawing unnecessary attention--especially at night -- so the darker the better!

Honestly, one of the first things I did was look at kids of all ages and sizes to develop the look for Miles Morales. Google really is your best friend! The body of a 12/13-year old child is so difficult to draw. You can find a 12-year old child who looks like a 16-year old one; and then find another who looks like an 8-year old. So I tried mixing all of those ages, and it worked!

What's your impression so far of Miles as a character? Do you have a grasp right out the gate in the first issue what his personality is like, and how do you think both the readers and the cast of the book will view him as compared to Peter's classic status as the wise-cracking nerd?

Pichelli: Miles is a sweetheart! I'm learning more about Miles with every script I get from Brian. All I can say so far is that Miles is younger than Peter. While the wise Peter already knew the right thing to do in certain situations, Miles has to go an extra step to reach the same results. He has to learn what his best options are and then try his best to achieve them. He comes from a deeply different background, which made him an introvert. Probably in the beginning, everyone will see him as a kid, but Miles knows that he isn't just that anymore, and he's going to prove it to himself and to the world. But that's all I can really say about him for now.

Brevoort: I haven't yet read a word beyond the "Ultimate Fallout" #4 story, So I'm going to get to meet him and respond to him just like any other reader.

The story of Mies' introduction broke in "USA Today," and so far response has been, well, overwhelming to say the least. I'm sure you guys were anticipating the news to catch on in general, but between some very supportive, positive responses and some downright racist ones, it seems to have been a very surreal week for everyone involved. What do you make of how this has blown up and the tenor of discussions overall?

Pichelli: Honestly, I knew this news would catch world's attention, but it was more than I expected! But I'm pretty happy with the reaction. Debates and confrontation of ideas are symptoms of interest. The passion the readers show for these changes means a lot. They really care about having an ethnic minority, or diversity in general.

The reader feedback that followed the promotional image of the Spider-Man costume was nothing compared to what's happening these days. Maybe Miles hit a raw nerve with society. I have to admit, I felt saddened reading all those racist comments on the net. Someone even used the word "politically correct" as a kind of insult!

Comic books were born to speak to the people about the people -- even when they talk about superpowers, mutants, aliens or whatever fantastic creatures come from the writer's mind.

Brevoort: Right at this moment, the zeitgeist seems to be very concerned with the question of inclusionism in comics, be that of female characters and creators, or ethnic characters and creators, or characters of different sexual orientations. There's just something in the air that's made this a hot-button topic well before the "USA Today" story broke. So on that level, the timing is fortuitous. People are interested.

There's plenty non-overblown ways to look at this new character and how his identity is rolled out, and one of the things we hear from readers maybe burnt out on this kind of day before media reveal is, "This is just a gimmick." Since we're learning first about this character in terms of his ethnicity rather than his story and in the papers rather than in the comics, it's easy to snap judge Miles as more of a publicity stunt right out of the gate? What do you say to that attitude?

Pichelli: I think it's the best way to hype a book up, and it's not just a trick. Marvel needs to spread the news everywhere, and if they can use the papers, why not? A lot people are stuck on Miles' ethnicity because it's the biggest, most obvious change in the book, but I can assure you that it's just the tip of the iceberg. You will see how complex and rich the new story will be when the book hits.

Brevoort: I think first off, we wouldn't do the story or introduce the character if we didn't think there was merit to him -- and not just as "Peter Parker with a different skin tone" but as a unique and individual character that has something to contribute to the Marvel line and the Ultimate Universe. Like any story that gets broken in the mainstream press, whether it's the death of the Human Torch or the death of Cap years back, I certainly understand why our core loyal audience would be a bit upset about that. But the goal here is the same as it is every single time we've done this. That is, to get as many people as possible out into the stores and checking out what we're doing. We need to expand our audience beyond the same old, same old, so we do this fairly routinely at this point.

So I get that it's a drag, and that you'd rather read the comic to find out -- or read the message boards that morning before you even make it to the shop sometimes. [Laughs] That's not very different from learning it in the mainstream news, but it is a little more difficult if you're of a mind to try and avoid spoilers. And we're sorry about that, but it's a situation where we have to try for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And the media response has been phenomenal, and will hopefully translate into an uptick of people finding their way into comic shops across the country. The story was everywhere -- and it was the first time that our new EIC "Alex" Alonso had to cope with this kind of barrage of interview requests. He spent most of the last few days talking to the press and being interviewed about it. Literally on the way up the elevator to my office -- our elevators in the new offices have TV screens with news feeds -- there was a story on "the new, black Spider-Man."

This is a good thing. It gets across the message that Marvel and comics are doing things that are important and relevant to people who may not have considered them. I hear the people that are upset. I empathize with them to the degree that I can, but I can't say that I'd do it any differently. There's no advantage to having a great story and an interesting take on this character and not telling as many people as we can about it.

And really, all that's really been spoiled by the news coverage is the fact that Miles is a half-Black, half-Hispanic kid, and that his name is Miles Morales. There's more to his story than just that.

When you introduce a character in this fashion and with this kind of publicity, does that make for more pressure for the book to perform both creatively and financially?

Pichelli: After all the publicity, we now have to do everything possible to not disappoint the reader's expectations. And we're doing it. I'm giving my best to help Brian's work. The pressure is high, and I know I have to care about every single detail to make this book special -- to make Miles a character who will last. I want Miles to be remembered as the Ultimate Spider-Man and not as just the black Ultimate Spider-Man.

And Tom, not to put too fine a point on it, but in story terms, is there a challenge for Brian and Panic and the editorial team in making sure that character's story holds a level of authenticity, especially for readers who may come from a similar background to Miles?

Brevoort: Obviously you need to do a certain amount of research to make sure you're getting things right. That having been said, just as not every blond haired, blue eyed, white character comes from the same place and the same life experiences, so too is that true for every character of every shade or ethnicity or religious background. You want to speak to the universality of the demographic as a whole, but not to the point where you're doing a caricature. Miles Morales will be an individual person in the same way that Peter Parker was an individual person. You wouldn't confuse Peter Parker with Steve Rogers, although there are things that they have in common. The same is true for Tony Stark and Bruce Banner and Reed Richards. Pick your character. They're all unique on a certain level, but they're still all white guys.

Miles Morales will be an individual character. I think Brian has shown over his years in the business that he can write with sensitivity and insight into the human condition regardless of the background of the characters he writes about. He's covered a broad spectrum of people, types, ethnicities, sexual orientations and what have you in all the work he's done. Given that, would you not expect that he'd be up to the challenge of developing a character of this particular ethnic set? And again, if Brian didn't think there was something legitimately worthwhile in telling the story of this character, we wouldn't be doing this. It's his story, his character and an exciting thing to do -- to try and bring a little more multiculturalism to the Marvel line in a big, big way.

Spider-Man is the quintessential Marvel character, the image most closely associated with Marvel. So taking a character like that and changing him in the Ultimate Universe to reflect the broader world around us I think will be effective, and sends a very clear message. But it is a challenge that anybody writing about a character with a different background than their own has to cope with. They have to find those common touchpoints of humanity that are common to all people, as well as some common touchpoints specific to the background or life experience of the particular character they're writing. My expectation is that Brian will do this because he's always done this.

What are you most excited about in terms of the future development of Miles and his time as Spider-Man? Can we expect some new villains and other supporting characters to work their way into the book once his adventures get rolling?

Pichelli: I'm really excited to see how Miles will interact with the Ultimate superhero community. Peter Parker was considered just a kid from his "colleagues," so imagine what could happen to someone as inexperienced as Miles! I can't wait to see how Miles will make his way through the Ultimate universe, and how he will grow as a person and as a superhero.

I still don't know all the villains that will appear in the book, but I'm sure there will be a lot of new ones (and I also hope to draw more women). We have so much to use, in terms of story and characters. Don't forget that we still have Peter Parker's supporting cast in this book -- or did you think it would suddenly disappear? Stay tuned!

<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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