TALK TO THE HAT: Secrets, Fears And X-Events

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, Brevoort helps dig into the creation of big Marvel events including the key pieces of Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen's "Fear Itself" series. Meanwhile after a string of recent Marvel announcements have hit the web, the editor explains what creative shifts are ahead for "Secret Avengers" heading into the next big Marvel Universe story. And as an exclusive piece of news found just in TALK TO THE HAT, Brevoort announces a project that will lead the way into next summer's big X-Men event! Read on!

CBR News: Tom, Marvel announced this week that Nick Spencer will be coming on to "Secret Avengers" for an arc tying in to "Fear Itself." This hit right on the heels of a lot of talk around DC Comics' "Flashpoint" event>, which announced 14 tie-in miniseries outside of the regular monthlies. Where do your preferences lie in terms of whether event stories should work their way into the ongoing titles or stay a bit removed with specials and why?

Brevoort: If I had to put my finger on what I think -- and I can't speak for anybody else necessarily, but to some degree what I think has guided our choices -- it's that I tend to prefer to have the tie-ins within the actual home books whenever possible. Now, sometimes it isn't possible because of the storylines a particular creative team has going on and their lack of interest in connecting with a larger event. So sometimes we'll do stories outside the monthlies, even though they feature characters that have a home book -- "World War Hulk: X-Men," for example. But in a perfect world, I would rather do those stories in the core titles both because they feel more legitimate and so that we're not stretching the financial resources of our readers too far.

It doesn't always work out that way, and as you say, people argue both sides of this issue. There is no real strong consensus. I think it really comes down to the individual reader and what they prefer. If there's a reader who likes reading "X-Men" but doesn't care about "World War Hulk," then they're perfectly happy that they story is outside "X-Men" and they don't have to pay attention to it unless they're intrigued by what that cover is or some such. There are others who would much rather have that story within the core book so they don't have to buy a separate comic or so they can clearly understand how it all fits in with whatever's going on in "Uncanny X-Men" that month.

But in general, I tend to like it when the tie-ins happen in the monthly books. Though in certain cases, there are no books, when we're doing stories that feature characters without a home series at the moment. We tend to cover some of that ground in books like "Frontline." Over the past few years, "Frontline" seems to have narrowed its focus down to being about the man on the street or more often the reporter on the street, but that wasn't the intent at the start. If you look at the first one, "Civil War: Frontline," it covered a wide array of characters and situations in the Marvel Universe. In those cases, there may be things you have to do that are sidereal to the main books because there just isn't a place.

There's no "Speedball" monthly.

Brevoort: Exactly, there's no Speedball monthly, but you've got a story to tell about Speedball so you put it in "Civil War: Frontline." All things being equal, it's always my preference to do these sort of tie-ins within the ongoing monthlies.

Using "Fear Itself" as a specific example, how does that work in the reverse? We know that Matt is in charge of Thor, so it's easy for him to know how that very vital Asgardian component fits into the big story, but how does he navigate whether Spider-Man or whoever are available? When the story is planned out, is Matt checking in with Dan Slott and everyone piece by piece, or does he go off and write the brunt of the event so everyone can see where they fit in later?

Brevoort: Generally, we build the spine of the series first. So Matt builds "Fear Itself" first. As we build these things, any of these massive crossover series does include 5,000 characters. But really, when you boil them down and do them right, they're really stories about three or four central characters. I've said a number of times -- to the point where people are probably sick of hearing me do it, but let me go again because it helps people understand this point -- that "Civil War" had dozens of characters flying around and punching each other and being political, but when you got down to it, it's really the story of three characters. It's about Cap on one side, Iron Man on the other side and Spider-Man caught in the middle between these two father figures. Every major beat that happens in the course of the story revolves around those three characters. So during "Civil War," those are the characters you had to calibrate pretty finely. As for everybody else, well, you knew where Ms. Marvel stood in a general sense in that she was standing alongside Iron Man in the argument, but you didn't necessarily need to chart her movements so specifically.

The same kind of thing with different characters is true of "Fear Itself." So while you will have dozens upon hundreds of Marvel super heroes running, punching, fighting and fearing, the core story is really centrally about three or four characters, for the most part. It's not to say that other characters won't have a moment or get an epiphany or go through a change. But as for the core of "Whose story is it?," that boils down to three or four guys. That doesn't require a heck of a lot of coordination beyond knowing who those characters are and being able to communicate that back to the individual creative teams working on those characters. You mention Spider-Man as an example -- if Spider-Man is one of the core important characters, then we'd bring the Spider-Man guys in in a major way and say, "Here's what we're talking about doing." Then they'd line up their tie-in issues, and away we go. It's, again, the sort of way we had to do it in "Civil War" given Spidey's unmasking and change of allegiance halfway through. We had to coordinate all of that with JMS and Axel who was editing "Amazing Spider-Man" at the time, to make sure the events and the timeline were reasonably consistent between the two books, and also that either one could be read independently.

On the other hand, if Spider-Man is not a central character in "Fear Itself," then all we need to tell people is the shape of the story and the kinds of places he may be involved. Within that, as long as they've got a story that can connect to the central tree trunk of the story, then we're good. That becomes a two-way flow of information because the Spidey creators may come back and say, "I've got this idea for a story that may do this," and that idea may inform what Matt does in the actual scripts of "Fear Itself," whether he tees something up or hints at it or leaves an opening. So there's a lot of back and forth, and really, Matt could spend all day every day trying to coordinate every character, but that's time better spent making the scripts better and stronger. That tends to be how we focus our guys on building of these things -- Matt is the central architect on "Fear Itself" and hopefully he's ahead of everyone else so his previous script will be available to everyone else when they need to connect with it.

Is there any chance you could give us a clue as to who those main pillars of "Fear Itself" will be?

Brevoort: I think it's pretty obvious from what we've said and shown so far that two of them are Thor and Steve Rogers. But I think it's best at this stage to leave it at that, and let the rest of the story unfold as it will.

Well, once we're into the story I'm sure there will be more specifics coming, and with most of these things, the story will reach a point that's a natural turning point, where more tie-ins can spin off of it. But the early book you guys have pointed to, like I said, is "Secret Avengers." That title is interesting in that Nick Spencer is taking the reins on the series. How did he become involved in the book, why do a "Fear Itself" tie-in right now and what does all this mean for the future of "Secret Avengers"?

Brevoort: Well, Ed was coming to an end of his time on the title. I don't know that we've said this anywhere yet, but "Secret Avengers" #12 will be Ed Brubaker's swan song on the book. He realized he had enough other things on his plate and some other stuff coming down the road, and that was the book that strained his mind more than any other. Everyone, including myself, told Ed, "You write a pretty good team book. Your ensemble work is good," but he was not having a wonderful time with it. It didn't flow for him in the same way that writing "Cap" or "Daredevil" or "Criminal" flowed for him. So when he reached critical mass in terms of his workload, he said, "I think I need to wrap on this, and this is a good point to do it. I'll have brought most of my main arc to a boil, but we'll leave it in a good place for other people to pick up the baton and take it forward." And that coincided with "Fear Itself" getting started, so it made sense to me, since those characters and particularly that team will be getting some decent play in "Fear Itself," to look for opportunities for connectivity and tie-ins.

I spoke to Nick about doing four issues of "Secret Avengers" -- one of which would be the Point 1 issue which we already announced, and a three-part "Fear Itself" tie-in. He was enthusiastic and down with it. Quite honestly, I thought of him both because he's a hot, young, up-and-coming voice and because he'd done such great work on "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents"...which is something you'd never thought you'd hear said in a Marvel column. [Laughter] But he did great work there! And he got people interested and talking about "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" which, based on the odds, should have been a book that completely flew under the radar and didn't register with anyone. But it's a book that clearly has an espionage bent to it, and that flavor seemed to translate over to the world of "Secret Avengers" as we've set it up. It seemed like a nice fit, and Nick came on board, and he pitched out in broad strokes what the Point 1 would be and the "Fear Itself" issues. He'll do these three stories, and they'll be personal stories, and they'll be exciting espionage-tinged adventures of the covert Avengers team. He'll get a chance to explore these characters in a little more depth than Matt will be able to in "Fear Itself," just as a matter of page count -- what it means for Steve Rogers to go from a soldier who -- up until this point -- has been more comfortable serving as a foot soldier on the front lines to now being a general overseeing vast numbers of other troops and super heroes in this worldwide battle from behind the lines. Nick will explore what kind of pressure that puts him under and what kinds of choices a General has to make that perhaps Steve isn't as comfortable with. He'll also delve into Valkyrie, given the Asgardian nature of what's going on, as well as some stuff with Natasha once we get to the third issue of the three-issue arc.

On the other end of the event spectrum, I understand you have a new book coming in May to kick off the next X-Men event with the four issue "X-Men: Prelude" series by Paul Jenkins. Is this story a bit of a culmination of Axel's time leading the X-Office? I know he'd been hinting a big story in the works for a while before becoming Editor-in-Chief.

Brevoort: The X-Men event that's coming up is definitely not an ending or the close of an era necessarily, because by the end of it we'll establish a new situation that will project the X-Men into the next few years, potentially. That having been said, the day-to-day responsibilities for the X-Men have passed from Axel to Nick Lowe, and so Nick will be much more involved in the specific of events there and may guide them in a slightly different direction. That having been said, Axel is Editor-in-Chief and is going to be overseeing all of this stuff, so it'll still head down the path he's set for it.

But the incoming X-event is definitely a culmination of a number of the threads and story points that have been percolating since back in "Messiah CompleX," and maybe even a little earlier than that. Paul's story functions as an overture to the event. It's not connected so much on a plot level as it is on a thematic level. It sets the table for what's to come from July to October, which is when the next X-Crisis will hit.

In story terms, Axel has been talking a lot about the stories coming up dealing with a leadership struggle, and as far as I understand it "X-Men: Prelude" will focus each issue on a different character -- the first drawn by Robert De La Torre and the second by Laurence Campbell. Paul Jenkins often does stories for you guys that pull in tight on character work amidst big events. How does this project fit that skill set?

Brevoort: There are two different things. The story coming up focuses not so much on the finite question of, "Who will lead the X-Men?" as much as it does the broader notion of, "Where does the mutant race want or need to be led at this point? Who is in the best position to give that guidance?" Certainly within the books over the past couple of years, the X-Men have drifted away from Professor X's philosophy and onto another path that Cyclops has been forced by circumstances to take them down, along with some other folks -- Wolverine and Rogue and a few others. Paul's story specifically focuses on the four characters who are at the forefront of the leadership question for mutantkind: Professor X, Cyclops, Wolverine and Magneto. Each issue of the series -- because Paul tends to focus on individual 22-page stories even as they all connect in the larger whole -- will paint a picture and give you an idea of what the mindset, direction and directive for each of these guys is going into the next event. And as I said, that'll be less about who leads the team as it will be about, "Where do we go from here?" or, "What is the path we'll choose to follow?" Some degree of optimism has returned with the appearance of Hope and the Five Lights, meaning that maybe the mutant race is not as absolutely on a path to extinction as it seemed over the past couple of years. So what do they do next as a result of this sea-change? Paul's story is very much about who these four characters are as individuals and what their specific philosophies are as we dive into that epic.

Last week, you opened up a discussion with the readers on the question over long comic runs and whether or not they'd rather see one set of creators stay on a franchise over the long haul or to do more specific, finite stories. You also asked the specific question of what books they'd like to see have new creators. The discussion ran for over 150 posts on the message boards, so there were a lot of opinions out there. Was there anything that stood out to you reading over everyone's opinions?

Brevoort: I think the consensus is what you'd typically expect it to be: namely, people that like a current creative team want them to be there forever, and people that don't like them want there to be a change. [Laughter] Outside of that, I don't think there was any greater consensus on the length and duration of creator runs. It was "We like the stuff we like. Give us more of that. We don't like the stuff we don't like. Can we please have something else?" Whenever someone would mention a given title and say the current team has been on there too long, someone else would show up three posts later and say, "That's nonsense! They still have plenty of stories to tell on that book, and they should be on there for a while to come!" So from my point of view, it was 150 responses and no absolutely clear consensus. Not that I was expecting there to be one, but it's always interesting to see what the fans have to say.

I thought it was interesting how people seemed to respond to certain long runs in terms of breaking them into the very planned out kind of 60-issue epic that Jonathan Hickman will do versus a more open-ended run with a franchise like Bendis on Avengers. Do you have a preference for how talent tackles an ongoing like that? If you're working with someone who seems to be going arc-by-arc, do you like to help them shape that into more of a novel approach?

Brevoort: That, too, depends on who the particular writers are and how they approach their work. Hickman is a guy whose brain is very oriented towards structure. He could do an eight-page story, and it'd be all about structure. So it's no surprise that any assignment he's taken on, from "Secret Warriors" to "SHIELD," lays out a master plan. That's how his brain is wired. On the other hand, Ed Brubaker can come on to "Captain America" with a bunch of ideas for stories he might want to do but no completely solid, immutable gameplan other than to tell good Cap stories and see how things play out. Both options are completely viable. I don't necessarily prefer one to the other or think one is better than the other, so long as the guy that's planning concretely is flexible enough to adapt to what's going on in the publishing line and the world, and the guy that has an open-ended run of good stories is able to execute them well so it doesn't grow stale.

It's one of those things where on paper it may sound better to come in with a massive 60-issue plan. I think that a certain portion of the readership hears that and finds a certain amount of comfort in that, where in a tangible way they feel it's all been blocked out and every line, every panel, every comma serves a purpose in the way you imagine Alan Moore on "Watchmen" worked everything out beforehand. Then you go and read all the interviews, and Alan Moore says, "I had the basic shape of it, but we were kind of making it up as we went." [Laughter] That's a case of a creator whose mind is wired a certain way in terms of structure who could go in with a loose sketch and still give the masterplan conception. I think readers like that idea because when a weaker issue comes along, it feels like there's a greater reason for it whether or not there actually is. But beyond that, I'm not sure. Like I said, I have no strong preference one way or the other.

You may come in with a giant plan and by issue four, your run is tanking and you have to tear all that track up. I think, certainly, there's a school of thought with guys who come in and pitch projects where I've had to go back to them and say, "You're coming at this all wrong." They'd talk about their setup to put all sorts of elements into play and go, "And then in year two, it's really going to explode!" and I'd say, "That's great, but you're not going to get to year two because your year one is kind of dull. It's all set-up for the great stories you'll one day write that you'll never get to." You've got to come off of the blocks strong, because the days where you could meander to a year two are over. The marketplace will not support you if your stories are not immediately interesting enough. You can't ease into it. What's your biggest, most exciting, most commercial idea? Start there. Start with the best thing you've got, and propel yourself from there because otherwise you'll never get there. I think we've all read books where issue #1 and #2 are kind of lackadaisical, and we never come back so it doesn't matter that issue #6 is great. Certainly, if Nick Spencer's second issue of "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" was brilliant but his first issue was all setup, he wouldn't be writing "Secret Avengers" right now because nobody would have noticed.

So it's absolutely critical in this day and age, if you're a writer or a would-be writer, to start big and start fast. Do not think you've got the audience's attention span to meander your way into a run. And that doesn't mean that every single story has to be sturm und drang, and certainly there's the ebb and flow of doing a big one then a small one. Some of Bendis' best work and even some of Hickman's best stuff has been on the quieter, more personal, less superhero-y issues. But those tend to come right after a big epic rather than before.

On to some quick fan questions before we wrap the week. poneley wondered "Who is the writer of New Mutants after Age of X ends?"

Brevoort: Let's turn this over to "New Mutants" editor Nick Lowe for the inside skinny:

Nick Lowe: HELLO PONELEY!!! There is no new writer. A script fell from the sky. An announcement is coming with the true authorship answered!

Finally, ian33407 wondered "Is there a chance to see Ann Nocenti back onto some Marvel characters? I'd kill for her writing a Spider-Man title, and teaming with Ted McKeever on it. Not especially a "Spider-Man MAX" but more something like "Web Of." That said, an ongoing "Powerpack" with art by JRJR would be a very fine start.

Brevoort: Hey, I know you! You've asked me this question a bunch of times over at Formspring! You've got some very specific things you'd like to see, Ian, but honestly, I don't know that any of them are in the cards at the moment. Ann has done a little bit of work for us recently, but nothing regular for quite some time. And I don't even know where Ted McKeever is at. And I have to say, I can't imagine a world in which John Romita Jr. would be interested in drawing a run on "Power Pack." Sorry!

And as one last bit of business, I believe it's time to announce who the first guest star is going to be for TALK TO THE HAT. With a little drum roll, I'll say, "And the guest will be....Budududududududududududududu...."

Brevoort: Ed Brubaker!

Hooray! So for the readers out there, if you've got any questions or comments you'd like to share with the writer of "Captain America," "Incognito" and "Secret Avengers," let them fly in the comments and both hat-wearing gents will be back here next week to talk!

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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