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 takes on the responsibility of covering the Spider-Man franchise and its current state within Marvel’s publishing line. With the current “Big Time” take on the character ld by writer Dan Slott heading towards its own “Spider-Island” event, Peter Parker and company have a lot going on in the Marvel U. But how is the current crop of Spider-Books different from the two-year long, thrice-monthly run of “Brand New Day”? And can Marvel grow the world of Spidey out into a multi-character franchise? Beyond answering those questions, Tom dips into the fan mailbag for some Q&A that includes his answer on current blog hot topic of Marvel’s page count for $2.99 comics. Read on!
Kiel Phegley; Tom, last week was Free Comic Book Day, and a lot of folks spent Saturday reveling in what comics has to offer. I myself hit up seven shops here in Chicago.
Brevoort: Seven shops?!? Wow, it’s good to know that there are seven stories in Chicago. [Laughter] Honestly, some parts of the country are not nearly that fortunate. It’s one of the things that’s really deceptive about living and working in Manhattan. From the Marvel offices, I can walk not that far in a bunch of different directions and get to a better-than-decent comic shop. But that’s one of those situations that only exists on the coasts and maybe Chicago right in the middle. I think everywhere else in the nation, it’s a lot harder. But you were saying…
I was just wondering if after a week of making comics there at the office, you yourself headed out tot he local shops near your home to have a peek at what folks were doing?
Brevoort: In this case, yes I did. I went out to a store near me with my boy. We picked up some free comics and bought some stuff and saw what was going on. It seemed like a pretty good turnout. Even from what I heard about going on nationwide, it seems that even more so than previous years people really showed up for Free Comic Book Day this year. I’m not entirely sure why that is. Maybe it has something to do with the economy or the weather or the “Thor” movie being out as opposed to “Iron Man 2” last year — but whatever it was, from all reports it was a very successful Free Comic Book Day this year. That’s good for everybody.
And it seemed like there was a lot of press and media coverage of the event — more so than in past years, I think. I gave a quote to somebody in the week leading up, and suddenly that quote was everywhere. That gives me some indication that the AP picked it up or that the story got disseminated in a much wider circle than I might have anticipated. It was a perfectly fine quote, so that’s all good. It wasn’t like I was saying something about the Black Avengers. [Laughs] But it shows that there was a bit more mainstream coverage of the fact that Free Comic Book Day was going on. Maybe that made people venture out and go “Let’s get something for free.” Either way, it’s good. A lot of the retailers have had just as hard a time if not a harder time dealing with the current economy as other kinds of retailers. So a day where they get a lot of people into their stores and have a chance to bring in new regular customers and hand sell some stuff for a nice, profitable week is a good thing. It’s nice we can do it once a year.
In terms of Marvel’s releases, I noticed that while for the past few years Marvel’s FCBD comics have come out at a smaller trim size, this year’s “Amazing Spider-Man” issue was a normal size and tied back in to Dan Slott’s regular work on that title. Did you guys make a conscious choice to make a product that would fit the expectations of the regular Wednesday comics reader a bit?
Brevoort: I don’t think that it’s any different really than what we’ve done for the last three or four years. The last time Dan wrote a “Spider-Man” for Free Comic Book Day three years ago, it came out a few months before Brand New Day and the thrice-a-month “Amazing” had begun. It was really a kick-off to that initiative. In terms of exactly where it took place chronologically, we had to be deceptively vague for a while. The year after that, we did “Avengers” which had the two Avengers teams, New and Dark, having a big throwdown with Ares and Frost Giants. That was pretty much a state of the state as far as the Marvel Universe was concerned. Then last year, we did “X-Men” which was all about the X-Men moving to Utopia as that was a big thing in the X-books at the time.
This year, we did “Amazing” which tied in to “Spider-Island” but also A) Spider-Man is an incredibly popular character, and B) Dan’s Spider-Man has been getting a lot of good response from people. And there’s another movie on the horizon, so it’s a good idea to prime the pump with Spider-Man again. It doesn’t feel to me like we tied it in any more concretely than we had in past years. Maybe the particulars of the story are such that they feel like it’s more directly leading into Spider-Island — there’s certainly a little teaser spread at the end as Steve [Wacker] has done in a few books — but I don’t feel like we consciously sat down and said “Let’s make this more like what we do on a monthly basis.” That’s been our operating mindset for the “mainstream Marvel Universe release” the last four of five years.
I do want to chest thump a little bit because we’ve done this every year now — and some people notice it but our guys don’t seem to get any kudos for it — but our Free Comic Book Day releases once again were completely new material. It was not stuff repurposed from other places. It was not previews of books set to come out in three months or six months. And while eventually these stories will mostly likely be included in the trade paperback or the hardcover of “Spider-Island” or wherever it makes the most sense, we spent out in terms of our creative resources and the money to pay all these people like we would with any other issue of “Amazing Spider-Man.” And we gave it to you for free, which is as good or better than anybody at our level tends to do.
I know there are many different publishers who do things many different ways, but you’re maybe not so subtly hinting about how DC approached their book this year. But I’m not sure that says more about anything than how publishers approach the audience. You’d like to think that any FCBD book would be the kind of thing where anyone could pick it up and jump right in. Do you think there’s any real difference in how you’re presenting that idea versus other releases? It feels like promoting original content as a selling point says that you’re releasing these for the die hards as much as any newbies.
Brevoort: Sure. But in terms of the kind of story that we do, this is a complete in a single issue story. It contains some portents or foreshadowing towards what’s going to be coming up in the future, but it’s written with an eye towards “If someone picks this up who hasn’t been reading our books, do they have enough information to get on board and understand what the story is and get into the characters?” That to me is the mission statement of Free Comic Book Day, and the best kind of thing we can do is intrigue people enough that they come back to their shop in a month’s time looking for the next Spider-Man, the next X-Men or the next whatever we choose to do.
Absolutely these are aimed at the current audience as much as a wider audience, but part of that too is that we strive very hard to make everything that we do — particularly stuff that may have more mainstream attention on it — accessible to the widest audience possible. Really, the ground rules for us aren’t that different from a regular monthly release. We might try a little harder or have it a little easier in that we have a story with a definite beginning, middle and end in one installment as opposed to being part one of six or a chapter of an ongoing soap opera. That’s a little difficult to make accessible right out of the gate. But I don’t look at this as being that different from us launching the first issue of “Ghost Rider.” You should be able to pick up the first issue of “Ghost Rider” and say, “Here we go. It’s day one, page one. Here’s the character, what he’s all about, what he’s in the middle of and the fascinating situation he has to deal with.” Maybe there’s a cliffhanger or a portent of what’s coming down the pike, but that just makes you go “Boy, I want to read the next one.” The only difference is that we’re not charging anybody.
I don’t know if they release any of the numbers through the regular channels, but in general do you know if Marvel prints more of these issues than they do the regular monthlies. Could this be the most widely circulated issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” this year?
Brevoort: Well, if you’re not counting illegal downloads, yes, absolutely.
Shifting on to the monthly “Amazing” run in general, I get what you’re saying about the response to Dan’s run since “Big Time” started getting some notice. I have my own theory on this, but I was wondering first what you think is different about the book since Dan began writing the book twice monthly. Dan wrote many stories before this as part of the “Brand New Day” writer’s crew, but have you gotten a sense internally of what makes this new approach work differently than what was going on in the thrice-monthly?
Brevoort: Sure, but before I get into this, let me say that I want to hear your theory before we’re done. But I think it’s fairly simple: the difference is that there’s one writer. Beyond everything else — the particular aesthetic or point of view a writer has — the thing that’s a pitfall of having so many writers on the thrice-a-month “Spider-Man” and something we were vexed to figure out constantly over the two-and-a-half years we ran things that way was that there was no way to capitalize on happy accidents. There was no way to capitalize on sudden inspiration. That is to say, if Zeb Wells was writing a Lizard story, and suddenly a scene came out of his fingertips with Spidey interacting with Jonah or Norah or Carlie or whoever that suddenly revealed something new, there was no way to follow up on that. At the same time as Zeb was doing that, Joe Kelly was already writing the next story, and Mark Waid was writing the story after that. A lot of pieces would get futzed around because of the overall flow.
Things come up and take on a life of their own, and quite frankly, sometimes you start a story thinking it’ll be two issues and find that you really need three. That can have an effect because it pushes everything back when dealing with multiple writers and a shipping schedule that is so unforgiving. You realize that adding an issue a third of the way in with a book that ships three times a month means that you’ll either have to throw bodies at it to get it done artistically or you’re not going to be able to do it. So you stick to your guns and make that story work within the amount of pages you had.
So I think right there you have a benefit. Now there’s one aesthetic, one point of view and one guy writing the book who, like any of our other books, can follow up on every idea he comes up with. Whether he comes up with it while he’s working on the initial scripts or whether he comes up with it while he’s dialoguing — because Dan still works old school Marvel style — off the art from Humberto, Stefano, Marcos or Camo — he can immediately feed those ideas back into what’s going on in a way that’s not as easy when you’re sharing the workload between four or five people. On top of that, it’s unabashedly a fairly commercial run. Dan came in with some commercial ideas — “I want to shake up Peter Parker’s world by making him more successful and stressing his science background. I want to give him a new job with some new supporting cast members because we’ve wrung out most of the older ones or moved them on like Jonah. And as part and parcel of that, I want to start upgrading his Spider-Man tech and give him new suits and weapons. I want to take away his Spider-Sense at some point because he’d had that as a fifth limb since he was 15, and to have him operate without that is like suddenly being deaf.” All of those things are more easily and readily managed with one guy at the held rather than four or five.
We can play to a major degree, and the plan can be really solid — I think overall the thrice-monthly “Spider-Man” worked incredibly well for an incredibly long time — but even stylistically, the tone and tenor of the book would change week-to-week depending on who was writing it. Some readers were put off by that, though I think we got better as we went along. But you had darker stories to light stories and then more action-oriented stories to soap opera stories. And then the character voices would shift from writer to writer — as they should. No two writers write the same way, and having all those guys there meant that we didn’t want to homogenize what they all did down to a single, neutral voice. That seemed counter-intuitive. If you were going to have Zeb Wells write Spider-Man, you want him to bring his crackle and energy and two-degrees left of center point of view to Spider-Man. And that’s not exactly what Joe Kelly does or exactly what Mark Waid does. But you want to capitalize on all of that. And I think we did well with it, but there is more consistency having one writer than there was with a number of writers, and I think it’s allowed people to get in, on board and comfortable in a way that a certain number of people weren’t able to on the thrice-monthly.
But what do you think?
My theory on it is this — when Brand New Day hit, the intent and promise of that series was “Spider-Man without the baggage that the marriage implies.” A lot of people read your Spider-Man manifesto on this topic and had an expectation for those books, but it felt somewhat that as the thrice-monthly went on, it became harder to make a totally clean break from certain ideas. There was a discussion at first of no classic villains, but then it became a big thing about “When will they use the classic villains again?” People really started to want to know when and how Mary Jane would return and what the “rules” of their relationship were. They wanted to know what she whispered to Mephisto.
All these threads from the big, controversial story that was “One More Day” hung over the proceedings some for the readers, and while Brand New Day was a new jumping on point in a lot of respects, there were elements of it that ultimately felt like the thing was a three-year project to work out the kinks of single Spider-Man. Then, once Joe did “O.M.I.T.,” it put a capper on that.
Now that Dan’s back solo, whether he consciously thought about this or not, it feels like he was really able to have a fresh take on things without anything hanging over his head. Do you feel that’s something that happened over the three years? That certain things had to be dealt with even as you tried to go as new and clean as you could?
Brevoort: I think what you’re talking about is valid. I don’t know so much that that stuff had to be dealt with so much as we chose to deal with it or wanted to deal with it at different points. But everybody going into that run knew from the start that we’d be operating to some degree under the dark cloud of fan outcry over “One More Day.” The “One More Day” guys were going to do their story and get out of Dodge, and then we were going to be the guys there, month in, month out. I don’t remember who it was, but there was a guy online who was outraged about “One More Day” and “the massive part that Dan Slott played in it.” He harassed Dan for months, despite the fact that Dan didn’t write that story. [Laughs] That was the guys before us.
So on that level, yes. The fact that that story happened and the choices we made — using new villains and building a six-month time gap in there — meant that we hit the ground running, and the longtime Spidey fans had questions that were preeminent in their minds along with a lot of outrage. And that had a certain effect in that any time you’d touch on anything relating to “One More Day” that emotion would all boil up again. I think you’re right that “One Moment In Time” did put a cap on that for a lot of fans, and while there are still readers out there with a question about this or that — or that are still outraged about what we’ve done — for the most part we’ve gotten acceptance from people. People more or less understand it. They like it or don’t like it, but either way, they’re ready to move forward and read some cool Spider-Man comics again.
Looking forward, this week Marvel announced a whole slate of tie-ins for “Spider-Island.” While I’m sure we’ll have more with the creators on the specifics of those books soon, the thing that I wanted to ask you about what the fact that Spider-Man has been a bit harder character to franchise over the years. Venom has been a popular spinoff character at times, but Spidey has never had a wide cast of solo stars the way franchises like X-Men or even Avengers or Iron Man have been able to pull off. Is part of “Spider-Island” a test to see if you can make Spider-Girl or Cloak and Dagger or whoever break out on their own while staying tied to Peter’s world?
Brevoort: I guess so. I don’t think we were quite looking at it the way you are, although that’s not to say that your point of view is incorrect. Certainly, when we launched Big Time we built a tiny little Spider-Man world which included “Amazing” and “Spider-Girl,” which we’re back to now, and then spinning out “Venom” shortly thereafter. I think the difference with Spider-Man really is that it comes out so frequently that you forget how, years ago, this was several separate titles. Spider-Man used to carry four, five or six titles and more if you count things like “Ultimate Spider-Man” or “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man” which really are Spider-Man titles. There’s a lot of Spider-Man coming out, even though it doesn’t seem that way. It’s illusory. And maybe it’s not as much as X-Men because in X-Men you get all the Wolverine books and then all the Emma Frost or Jubilee or Magneto books for that month along with all the X-Teams — your Factors, Forces, Men and Uncannys.
I don’t think Spider-Man has ever had trouble franchising in terms of titles, but when it comes to characters it’s a different situation. X-Men is a team situation. Avengers is a team situation. And within those larger groups, there are a number of characters, any of whom can spin off into their own projects. With Spider-Man, that’s a single character. So if you’re not dealing with Spidey proper, you’re dealing with a character who’s maybe bubbled up to become popular in Spider-Man’s world or somebody in his circle.
In terms of “Spider-Island,” we were looking at it in terms of doing a smaller, more mid-level-sized event like “Shadowland” last year, but putting Spidey at the center of it. We haven’t done a Spider-Man-centric event in the longest time. The last one I can really think of — and people can correct me online — was probably “Maximum Carnage” a million years ago. The idea here was to do a Spider-Man story that was big enough to involve a lot of other characters but that at its core was a Spider-Man story. It came out of his world, involved his cast of characters and presented a situation that was ineffably Spider-Man, putting him at center stage of a larger thing in the same kind of way that, for good or ill, Daredevil was at the heart of “Shadowland.” And so in the course of the story, you’ll see a lot of heroes and villains of various sorts — not just the Spider-Man crew but a lot of characters his world has touched upon. Spider-Man over the past few years has certainly expanded his sphere of influence so the Avengers or the FF showing up is very comfortable now. The time seems right to do an event that’s manageable sized but that Spidey can be the heart of.
And when you’re talking about Spider-Man’s world, your brain tends to go more typically to the ground level, urban characters — your Cloak and Daggers, and so forth. In the case of “Master of Kung-Fu” Dan was already using Shang Chi, so it just made sense to feature him. We’re doing some stuff involving the villains that are both from the book and “Spider-Island” proper. It’s really nothing more than that. And there are other tie-in books across the line like “Heroes for Hire” or “Herc” which, like “Shadowland,” will become their own part of the story and reflective of it. It’s a big Spider-Man story, but that makes is a smaller event on a Marvel scale. “Fear Itself” is global while “Spider-Island” is more or less New York-centric.
And I think the other thing we’re getting at here is that it’s Peter Parker-centric. It’s harder to expand Spider-Man’s world when he’s arguably the most iconic and relatable of the Marvel characters.
Brevoort: And I think — thanks to the way Dan thinks — it has a concept at the center that, when you hear it, you get it. If Spider-Man’s operating parameters are “With great power comes great responsibility,” then if everybody or a lot of somebody’s had that same power, does the responsibility change? That’s the nugget in a nutshell. If suddenly thousands of people in Manhattan are gaining spider powers that are similar to or better than what Spider-Man has, what does that do. How does it change his world and life or how he uses his power responsibly? It’s like that line from “The Incredibles”: “If everyone’s super, then no one’s super.” Does he have the power anymore, and if he doesn’t, does he have the responsibility? That’s one of the themes running through “Spider-Island.”
Moving on to fan questions, GCA-FF asked something that touches on an internet hot topic for the week: “I got back into comics thanks to the “Three” run and have been reading Future Foundation and Amazing Spider-Man since. Into the third issue, I feel that the number of pages in the FF book (24) at the $2.99 price/month doesn’t provide much story for the month, considering how many characters are on the FF roster. Has there been any consideration to bump FF to $3.99 and the number of pages to 32 like ASM?”
Brevoort: Not as such, GCA-FF. “Amazing Spider-Man” has been something of a special case in terms of its back-up material, and even that will be coming to an end as we move into “Spider-Island.” But on the FF front, we do have an aggressive publishing schedule planned, wherein you’ll be seeing more than 12 issues in the course of the year. You may have noticed the shorter-than-usual wait between #2 and #3, and #4 will be along before you know it, as well. Hopefully, this will better allow us to service the large cast we’ve assembled over the last year or so.
And I should make note here that several people have seen that it appears as though Marvel’s $2.99 titles have been dropping to 20 pages an issue. After the comments many folks (including yourself, if I recall correctly) made about dropping work for freelancers when DC went to 20 pages at $2.99, what makes Marvel’s move to 20 pages different in terms of how much the artists are able to make each month compared to what DC was criticized for?
Brevoort: Our page counts tend to fluctuate wildly from month to month and even issue to issue. Nobody ever seems to notice, for example, that we occasionally go up to 23, 24, even 25 pages in “New Avengers.” And sometimes we go the other way. In the case of “FF,” it was part of a strategy to make sure that artist Steve Epting could complete the launch issues on our more aggressive schedule. In a case like that, we do our utmost to ensure that Steve always has work on his drawing table — be that the next issue of “FF,” an upcoming “FF” cover, or a short story or a long-term project that can be picked away at when and if they’ve got any downtime. With both “FF” #587 and “FF” #1 being larger than normal issues, we needed to make back the time somewhere, and this is how we went about accomplishing that.
On another hot topic, reader 5h4n14c — whose real name is Shane C. — has seen something in between the lines of a recent issue of “Amazing” that he waned to ask about: “I was looking through a Marvel Previews book to find the teaser for ASM #666. I noticed in the background a distinct lower-case “e.” As I stared, I found the word “sex.” This isn’t my imagination- the webbing to the bottom-right of the “e” is defined by “x” lines, and above-left there is a zig-zag containing an “s.” This isn’t the first time artists have managed to sneak the word into the background- I distinctly remember the issue of Morrison’s X-Men run that did the same thing numerous times within its pages. Please explain, how much editorial control goes into a decision to publish such material? I understand the nature of sex in comics, (the figure proportions say it all) but something like a consciously-decided subliminal placement doesn’t sit well with me, as I’ve been a customer of Marvel since I was seven (I’m now 31-years-old). I have seriously reflected upon the practice of using subliminal images in media, and feel ethically violated to some degree.”
Brevoort: I have to be honest, Shane, your question was the first I had heard about this. So I pulled out the cover image in question, and I stared and stared at it, trying to find the thing you were talking about. Eventually, with the help of James Viscardi, we located what we think you’re talking about, and highlit it in the attached images. Now, having had to really work to find the thing you’re talking about, I’d have to say that I think you’re seeing something there that wasn’t intended by anyone, so there wasn’t any decision to deliberately place such a thing into the artwork (as opposed to that X-Men issue, where the artist did do it deliberately, as a kind of game for himself.)
Still, we take this sort of question very seriously, so I asked editor Steve Wacker about it, who in turn questioned the artist, Mike Del Mundo, about the situation. And Mike replied:
Mike Del Mundo: Really? No, I didn’t. Where does it say that? Honestly, I really didn’t.
I’m a bit thrown off by this, lol.
But honestly, no way.
Brevoort: So I’m sorry this upset you, but I think this is an instance where “a cigar is just a cigar”, and this wasn’t done deliberately, believe it or not.
Sticking with Spidey, Dark Chris wondered “The new Sinister Six made a appearance in Amazing Spider-man #648. We recently saw them in Invicible Iron Man. In your previous interview, we saw some pages of Avengers Academy #14 and Sinister Six were there too! Is there something planned for the team? Like an event or a mini-series or at least an appearance in ASM again?”
Brevoort: Since I was talking to Steve Wacker anyway, I put your question to him, Chris, and he said:
Steve Wacker: Seems that way. In those cases Dan Slott, Matt Fraction and Chris Gage all worked together to make sure the appearances mattered.
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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