TALK TO THE HAT: Ultimate Creative Calls

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 peels back the curtain on how big time creative decisions get made at the House of Ideas. From the conference that gave Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar their chance at crafting this week's "Death of Spider-Man" in the Ultimate Universe through to the pitch that lead to Joe Casey's incoming series "Vengeance" all the way through the ideas that informed Ed Brubaker's decision to place Steve Rogers back in the uniform of "Captain America," Tom tells all on who makes the final call for Marvel's biggest books. Plus, the editor offers some tough talk on the success of the Point One initiative and answers fan questions on the future of Cap. Read on!

Kiel Phegley: Tom, if I'm getting my news right, you're making your triumphant return to basic cable this Sunday evening on Food Network's "Last Cake Standing" as a celebrity judge. It seems that Marvel has made quite a few connections with that group, with the one-shot "Wolverine: The Fifth Quarter" written by Food Network star Chef Chris Cosentino and drawn by Tim Seeley on its way soon. I've always assumed that C.B. Cebulski leads this connection, but on the whole, how do these things come together in terms of getting you on camera?

Tom Brevoort: I think there's two factors going on here. One is that obviously C.B. Cebulski is a huge foodie, and since he circulates on the edges of that world to begin with, he's always on the hunt for new restaurants and new food experiences, and that overlaps with Food Network and what they're all about and their stars - most of whom have restaurants themselves. In terms of the appearances, that was all came from Food Network calling us up to say "We want to do a super hero themed episode of 'Last Cake Standing.' Would you have anybody that could serve as a judge?" I ended up being the guy to go out there. A year later, they did a super villain show, and C.B. did that one.

The one that's airing Sunday is more Marvel-centric. It actually revolves around the 50th Anniversary of the Fantastic Four, and all the competitors make FF-themed cakes depicting actual scenes out of FF history in the competition. That one was even more of a joint venture than the previous ones. In the past, it was just myself or C.B. going out and serving as a judge whereas this one being so much more Marvel-themed meant there was a lot more coordination with our rank-and-file in terms of getting them reference materials and the appropriate approvals to use the Fantastic Four. And it's a nice way to kick off the anniversary of the FF, which happens later this year.

You're considered by many to be the expert on old school Marvel. Without spoiling the episode, how well did the competitors seem to nail FF history?

Brevoort: They definitely represented some specific moments very clearly and pretty amazingly given that all of these works are built out of cake and built in ten hours. The pieces are pretty spectacular. Each competitor was conversant to a different degree - some had read Marvel Comics in their upbringing and some had not. But they'd all been given a fat packet of background info, and they absorbed that and translated that into their own idiom to design these cake sculptures. They were all pretty well versed by the time I walked in, at least in terms of whatever pieces they tried to achieve.

On the publishing end of that, aside from this upcoming Chris Cosentino, you guys have done other celebrity books over the past few years with folks like Tim Gunn from "Project Runway." I understand these things can be good for getting the Marvel brand out there or getting a nod on "The Daily Show" here or there, but how do those titles actually do? Do you consider them loss leaders, or have they actually found some purchase amongst readers?

Brevoort: I don't think any of them have been loss leaders. Those typically tend to sell pretty well and tend to sell to an audience that we don't normally tap into. That's one of the fun things about doing this. Marvel has been around long enough now that it's a cultural touchstone, particularly as more and more Marvel films come out. That helps to push the characters into the mindset of the mainstream. People now know Marvel the way they didn't even ten years ago, and a lot of people have memories of Marvel from when they were growing up. So there's a real affinity for our characters and what we do, and being able to leverage that into all these different areas where you wouldn't naturally think of Marvel is kind of fun. It's an outreach thing that brings Marvel and the world of comics to the attention of people that might not have thought about this for ten or 15 years if they ever thought about it. It gets those people out and interested in what we do, and things like the Mayor Bloomberg comic we did about all the things New York does to help people find employment - maybe there's some tangible good that can come out of that for somebody.

These are all good things, but none of them are done as loss leaders. We're a business first and foremost, and thankfully because of the strength of our characters and what we do, we're able to find ways to make a buck at the same time as we are spreading the Marvel gospel far and wide. The more people who know about what we do and might become interested in our monthly releases and stories, the better. That's part of a larger synergistic goal for everything that Marvel does from the films to animation to consumer products to publishing and licensing down the line. The more people have good feelings associated with Spider-Man in general, the better the films and toys and comics do...the better everything does.

And so that's why this week is the perfect week to shoot him!

Brevoort: [Laughs] Yes! Because nothing puts the character on the map so much as gunfire!

So let's talk about "Death of Spider-Man" in the Ultimate line. I know the immediate fallout from the cliffhanger endings of this week's issues will have to wait until next month to get resolved, but watching this story unfold has been extremely interesting. For one, up until the last pages of "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Ultimate Avengers Vs. New Ultimates" this week, the two main threads of this event were pretty much going along without any connection. When you guys are working with the big name writers like Brian Bendis and Mark Millar on a significant storyline like this, how much input do you have on what they're doing on their own tracks beyond the initial story meeting? It seems like they've reached the point where they're left to their own devices to some extent.

Brevoort: Well, certainly in an instance like this where there's a common scene between "Avengers Vs. New Ultimates" and "Ultimate Spider-Man," that's got to be coordinated pretty specifically. Obviously, it needs to be the same scene in both books, and so Leinil Yu and Mark Bagley have to have the same reference and be drawing the same environment and know what bridge it is and that it's this time of day - that sort of thing. But overall I think it varies, quite honestly. I can't speak too directly towards the Ultimate books because I'm not working on them. I can relate in that I've worked with both Mark and Brian on projects over the years, and generally speaking on a month-by-month basis for myself, I know what Brian is doing. We talk about things in broad strokes, but his preference is to send me a script completed and let me bounce off of it rather than to do an outline before or to talk over every single beat. That's his process, and it seems to work. He's got a pretty decent track record, and he doesn't need anyone to hold his hand to cross the storytelling street. What he needs me to do is tell him whether things make sense and fit in with what we're publishing with the characters so we don't have Spider-Man fly or something ridiculous like that. But in terms of the broad strokes, like you say, when the initial idea is broken we'll bounce ideas around, but it's less so on a script-to-script basis although there's always some input.

With Mark, it's the same kind of thing. I've worked with Mark on things that have had a little more outline work because they've been big crossover event kinds of things. In the case of something like "Death of Spider-Man," I'd assume there's a little more coordination because you've got two stories that at some point need to work very definitively in lockstep. And that means that everybody's got to be pulling in the same direction, so somebody can't just wake up one morning and decide to pull left without having a negative effect on every other chapter of every book that comes thereafter. But I guess the real answer is kind of in the middle. For the most part, we let our creators tell the stories they want to tell. We trust them to do that, but we trust them with a certain amount of guidance and oversight. It's not that we're not involved in the process, but we're not so involved that we're dictating or massaging or being careful about every panel on every page.

The other thing it appears Editorial does is zero in on what issues of a series should be marked for the "Death Bag" treatment, and we've got two coming for "Death of Spider-Man." I assume that the inclusion of these means the "Fantastic Four" bag was something of a success? Are we going to be seeing more of these bags roll out across the year?

Brevoort: I think it's no secret that the bagged issue of "Fantastic Four" was a huge success for us, and here again is a situation that lends itself to a similar treatment. But that said, I'm hoping that we're smart enough not to go too crazy with this kind of thing. Used sparingly and selectively, these kinds of enhancements can be a fun thing. So maybe we'll switch it up in the months ahead. I'm told that rings are popular.

Back on the topic of that level of free rein given to creators, Marvel this week announced the "Vengeance" series by Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta. This book doesn't drive a big chunk of story in the same way an event comic does, but I get the impression that there may be more hands-on notes given to it as it launches a whole new group of characters to the Marvel U. Do you think Editorial has a bit more of a hand in smaller projects sometimes, or does it really boil down to case-by-case even within the work of a particular writer?

Brevoort: I think it does boil down to case-by-case even within. In the case of something like "Vengeance" - and we're not that deep into it so it may change and/or Joe Casey may pop up in the comments section to say I'm completely off base here - my sense of it is that we went to Joe with a nugget of an idea. Tom Brennan reached out to him and said, "Here's an idea for a project that could be something like this," and Joe being Joe took that seed and ran in directions that we didn't necessarily see or anticipate as he built out his story and came back with a pitch. At that point, it got workshopped some. For all that everything you've seen seems to be all-new characters, there are a lot of existing characters involved, and it's set in the contemporary Marvel Universe or at least the Marvel Universe of three months from now. So Joe had to be brought up to speed on some things. "You can't have the Red Skull do this because he's dead" or something. Issues of that sort come up all the time. "What are the parameters you're functioning in? What's going on that month in the books? Where is Thor that month or Cap or Iron Man?" Or even if we're not looking at what's going on that month, then we have to know what's happening in that general timeframe. You can't have Iron Man needing his armor to keep his injured heart beating if that's no longer the status quo. Not to say that's what Joe's doing - I'm just using it as a broad example so I don't spoil what Joe's doing ahead of time.

Once that's all hammered out, the number of cooks generally tends to go down. He's working with Tom Brennan as his editor, so Tom will read and review his scripts each month and then discuss things with him. Because Tom's an Associate Editor, Steve Wacker or myself will also sometimes read scripts, but everything funnels through Tom. And it will be Tom and Joe and Nick who will be responsible for putting that project together. That's not really that different than Brian and me on "Avengers" except that there's maybe one less level of involvement there because I'm at the level I'm at and don't need to deal with an Executive Editor over me. But it's the exact same sort of methodology. The more you need to interact with the other titles in the Marvel U that use the bigger players, the more coordination there's going to be and the more likely it is that a big writer on a big book will have a plan that can impact where you want to go. But that's really the sum and substance of it.

It's a little different if you're working with someone who's a new writer to the field or who's experienced in other media than comics because there's a steeper learning curve when you translate what they do their to what we do, which is printed words and images on a page. There's a difference in writing dialogue, for example, for film or television because guys have to make the downshift to realize that in comics dialogue is not time but it's space. That is to say, dialogue on a television show is the amount of time it takes an actor to say a phrase. Whereas, in comic books, dialogue is the amount of space the words take up in the panel. It's a slightly different thing. A monologue that would work just fine when performed on stage or in film would have to be broken up in some different ways to work in comics. Comics is all still images, and there can be a translation problem. So there may be a little more oversight with someone like that in trying to translate the values those people have into our medium in the same way you have to work with younger writers starting out who are more likely to make mistakes the guys before them also made - cramming too many words on a page, story logic that doesn't make sense, not understanding that Captain America doesn't go around shooting people or any number of crazy examples I can come up with. Really it's a matter of how experienced someone is in our idiom. Guys who have been doing this for awhile don't typically need a lot of help telling a good comic story.

Well, that's kind of what got me thinking along these lines - the general reaction we see from readers sometimes to big stories where people will say, "Here comes Bendis, and he just decided that he's going to ruin character X for us." [Brevoort Laughs] But when you see risky changes take place in the books, there is that assumption that fans have of a writer's motivation. In what ways do you play devil's advocate for that point of view when Brian and Mark come in wanting to shoot Spider-Man?

Brevoort: A couple of things there. First of all, it is always amazing to me - and it probably shouldn't be because there was a point when I was on the other side of the table, and the only thing I knew about how comics were made was reported in "Amazing Heroes" or "The Comics Journal" which is the same sort of things fans today are able to divine from interviews like this or the common knowledge of the day, whatever that is - but there is a tendency among the fans to relate to the creators and the editorial staff like they're the characters. That is to say, in most situations they want to boil the people involved with this stuff down to trading card stats: he is a super villain. He is a super hero. He's a good guy or a bad guy who does this or that. The reality is that not only are we as people more complex than that, but the ways in which we relate are more complex than that.

I had someone replying to a FormSpring answer I'd given the other day that was about Joe Quesada and how when we were talking about putting Steve Rogers back in the Cap uniform for Captain America #1, Joe was a proponent of not doing it. He liked the current setup of Bucky as Cap and Steve in the Marko Djurdjevic costume running the show, and he said so. We ended up not going that way, and this particular fan came back and said, "Oh, you're full of crap with your answer. We know that Joe Quesada does whatever he wants, and like a Rhinoceros running through the halls, he can do anything unilaterally, and that's how it works." That's the impression this fan had, but that's not the case. The reality is that Joe as Chief Creative Officer has a massive amount of pull, but the way we function on a day-to-day basis is that when things like this come up, we tend to discuss them. Each and every person here from the top on down to our most junior-level editors is trained and has experience and has a valued point of view. We don't do something that massive without an actual discussion of the pros and cons of it. Those discussions usually involve our creators who have a point of view on the stories that they want to tell and even ideas on the stories their fellows are telling - "That's a good idea. That's a bad idea. Here's why." So we don't make any large-scale decision like this without a certain amount of genuine debate. Over the course of that debate, hopefully everybody gets to have their say, and in the end the wisdom of the crew will out. That doesn't mean Joe Quesada gets to have his particular point of view win out in every single case. Like with anything, Joe comes in with an idea, and over the course of batting it back and forth and debate, you find yourself looking at these things from different perspectives and seeing the value in those other points of view.

So it's not as cut and dried as "Brian Bendis wants to ruin this thing for us!" Typically, there are anywhere between a half dozen to a dozen people who are all contributing to ruining this thing for you. [Laughter] In terms of playing devil's advocate, I think that comes naturally out of that process. You get any six of us in a room, and except in the rarest of occasions, we're not going to agree 100%. There's going to be a certain amount of overlap and a certain amount of differing opinions, and we'll jockey back and forth until we find what we think the best course of action is. Within that, we don't tend to worry too much about whether the fans will feel this way or that way. It's always there in the back of your head, but thinking of that too much is paralyzing. It's a way to excuse not taking any risks or trying anything daring because the fans would be upset, or it leads to the total opposite, which is jumping off of buildings because "the fans won't expect us to jump off a building to our death."

That having been said, we discuss intimately every aspect of a major initiative like this. There was a whole Ultimate retreat to break the "Death of Spider-Man" story, and Brian and Mark and a bunch of the other writers were there along with Mark Paniccia and Sana Amanat and myself and Axel and Joe and Dan Buckley. All this stuff got batted around there several months ago. In the interim, there have been even more discussions, usually amongst smaller groups of people headed up by Panic because he heads up the Ultimate line and the Ultimate Universe or Mark and Brian particularly because they're working on the actual story. But at any given point where other points of view are needed on a story, Axel and I or Joe and Dan get involved as well. But ultimately, these stories are Brian's and Mark's. At the end of the day, Brian's name is on "Ultimate Spider-Man" because he's writing "Ultimate Spider-Man." Those are his words and story beats even though they've been arrived at through some degree of discussion with everyone else. I don't think it's fair to unilaterally condemn him that way, nor I think is any of that stuff motivated by the kind of pique that fans tend to think we're guilty of. "We'll shoot Ultimate Spider-Man...that'll show 'em!" [Laughs]

We've got a very profitable "Ultimate Spider-Man" comic book...clearly what we're going to do is shoot the character off just to "show them." That's passion talking and a sort of unreasoned passion on the part of fans who liked something that we do and see it changing in some ways. Change can be scary. For every fan that likes something new, there are those who hate to see things change. For every fan of Bucky Barnes as Captain America, there was a Steve Rogers fan who was upset because he was rotting in a grave. Not every storytelling decision is to everyone's taste, and that leads to a lot - particularly in the semi-transparent internet age - a lot more cynicism and a lot more just plain anger at the decisions that are made. I'm not sure what, if anything, can be done about that. But we can't base our storytelling decisions and our publishing plans on the fears of the masses. We're paid to be smarter than that and more forward-thinking than that and braver than that on some level. Most fans think that this job is easy and that they could do it and if only everybody came into this with the same values that they had, there wouldn't be any mistakes in the comics anymore and all the characters would be portrayed the way they like them at all times. It's a much more complicated, complex machine than that. It would be eye-opening to any fan to spend a week up here trying to do this because it is far more difficult than it appears. And now you're listening to me play the world's smallest violin because I have a very nice job. [Laughter]

I know we're swinging between topics here, but one fan note on a the Marvel U that did pop in to mind when we learned a bit about the "Vengeance" series was our discussion with Omar from a few weeks back where you discussed the danger in introducing young characters tied to classic heroes and villains in that it could make the core characters feel too old. Was that idea at all broached when "Vengeance" was in development?

Brevoort: It's kind of hard for me to address this at this point without getting into what "Vengeance" is actually about in a way we're just not ready to yet. So ask me again in a few months.

All right. The third thing I wanted to ask about in terms of how you're helping the talent build up these new stories is the "surprise" news that you'll be relaunching "Captain America" with Steve Rogers and a new #1...

Brevoort: It's a shock! [Laughter] We didn't see it coming at all! There was no foreshadowing of that ever. I read about it in the newspaper and was stunned!

We've talked about this in the past, but as Ed Brubaker writes this book, he leaves himself open for a lot of improvisation. The biggest example of this is the death of Steve and how that changed his plans, but it appears that here you had a bit of the reverse happen where you knew a date on the horizon that would be perfect to put Steve back in costume to tie with the movie. Knowing you were heading to that point, how did you and Ed work to bend the story to that shape or make sure you weren't spinning your wheels a bit while you made your way there?

Brevoort: I don't think it's a case of having to bend the story. That kind of comes from a place that assumes Ed read about it in the newspaper and thought, "Oh, great, now I have to do this in three months." We've been moving towards "Cap" #1 for the longest time. Steve McNiven has been working on that book for months now, and even before that, we knew it was coming so we started to kind of block out 2011 with Ed having to make some concrete decisions on what he wanted to do. That's when that discussion I mentioned where Joe was involved actually happened. I think it was maybe nine months to a year ago. At the end of the day, more than anybody else Ed had the biggest vote in this. We had absolute freedom, he and I, to continue on with Bucky as Cap and Steve being the Super Soldier, and nobody here in publishing and nobody up and down the line at Marvel Studios would have blinked at that.

But it just makes sense. If there's going to be a Captain America movie with Steve as Captain America in front of more people than have thought about him in decades, you should have a "Captain America" #1 that features the same character that gives people a nice entry point into where Captain America is now in the modern Marvel Universe. It just makes sense in the same way that it did when we did "Invincible Iron Man" or when we started to plan "Mighty Thor." The only difference was that people up here really liked what Ed was doing with Bucky as Cap - as did Ed himself. But I think he'd be the first to tell you that that story was going to have some finite conclusion. It was not going to be a completely indefinite status quo. Eventually, Steve was going to be Captain America again. It's like the tide. Eventually, you're going to put that character in that uniform, and Ed wants him in that uniform.

People may forget this, but Ed signed on to "Captain America" to write about Steve Rogers. And he got to do it for a year or two before we shot him, but he hasn't been able to really do it for a while. And Ed's got a lot of Steve Rogers stories to tell. He had a bunch of other stories to tell as well, and he was able to invest Bucky with more depth than we'd anticipated when we started, but the timing of this just makes too much sense. So that decision was made long ago, and everything else parsed from that. We knew we wanted to do the trial and the "Gulag" story we're doing now, and we knew "Cap" #1 was coming after. And just like any other story arcs we're doing, we blocked that out saying "This will be five issues or six issues to get us to where we need to be." The only difference there was that Ed had a very definitive line in the sand being the Cap movie opening in July, so we knew we had to get all this done by July. And that's the same standard kind of story blocking we do in a regular basis. It's not different than when we've got a big summer event coming in July, and we've got to make sure we're in the starting blocks by then for that kind of a story.

So I don't think there was a lot of bending, and I certainly don't think there was a lot of wheel-spinning. I think that every issue of "Cap" since "Reborn" has been valuable in terms of illuminating and delving into Bucky in a very real way as well as setting Steve up in the role of Super Soldier and overseer of the Avengers. Not that that necessarily is going to change. What I'm saying here is that because we started on the process of this so long ago, it was a natural flow and not something we had to do a three-point turn to get to.

On the topic of #1 issues, I wanted to ask about the results of the Point One initiative. Sales estimates have been hitting the web for March books, and a few people have noted that the Point One comics haven't registered numbers as strong as the regular monthly titles. Does that mean the initiative didn't do what it was meant to - namely drawing in some new readers to the regular titles?

Brevoort: I've seen some of the internet chatter about this over the last few days-and honestly, these people don't really know what they're talking about. First of all, as I always say, as I always say, the numbers that you see released online are not accurate. They never have been, and they never are. The Point One books have done terrifically for us. Many of them have performed at a level slightly higher than the monthly issues, and even the weakest of them sold at around the level of the monthly book. That's a massive success! And so we're going to be continuing with that program - we've got another flight of Point One issues ramping up for later on in this year. I also have to say that I think our creators and editors really did a bang-up job on them - the quality level throughout was very high.

I've seen some people complaining about the "Amazing Spider-Man" Point One issue being about Venom, and I have to say, I think they're missing the point a little bit. These were designed to be self-contained, stand-alone stories that give readers a sense of where the series is right now, and which drop hints or portents for the future. That "Amazing" issue did just that, at least in my opinion. And given that we'd just done a Spidey launch a few months earlier in Big Time, it made sense to us to focus on Venom, and putting him back on the canvas in a major way.

Plus, there's a lot of promotion that comic fans may not notice, from the shelf talkers and point of purchase units, in addition to the marketing we did with mainstream outlets-heck, the Point One initiative was mentioned on USAToday.Com just this week.  

Finally, speaking to retailers at the recent Diamond summit, our SVP of Sales, David Gabriel, received numerous requests to make the Point Ones a regular thing, so overall our retailers seem to both have liked them and been able to sell them. (And a DC Exec I won't name congratulated C.B. Cebulski on the program at WonderCon, and said that they wished they had thought of it.) 

We've been running long on discussion of the news, but I don't want to forget fan questions for the week, and we got a particularly good one from JosephS who asked: "I had a follow-up question to Tom's comments regarding the quick cancellation of some titles. In a case like the latest version of Spider-Girl, why isn't a decision on cancellation held off until the first collection is released? Isn't it possible, especially in this day and age of "waiting for the trade", that enough people are planning on buying the collection to make it worthwhile to continue publishing the series?"

Brevoort: It's not impossible, Joseph, but based on history it is very unlikely. In the majority of cases, a series that sells weakly as individual issues also sells weakly as a collection. Now, there are always exceptions - and if we found that "Spider-Girl" did extremely well in collected form, that might motivate us to take another stab at it. And as I revealed a few weeks back, we're not planning on abandoning the character - she'll have a role to play in the "Spider-Island" storyline gearing up in "Amasing" this summer. And from there, who knows?

Following up on our discussion this week, Moose967 had this to share: "FINALLY Steve is Cap again. Thank you so much for that. Question: Is Steve McNiven the regular artist or just on for the first arc? I hope he stays on as the regular artist personally."

Brevoort: I'm honestly not sure what qualifies as a regular artist these days, Moose. All I can tell you at this point is that Steve is definitely illustrating the first story, and he seems to be having a grand time of it. Beyond that, you're talking about 2012, and I'm not really ready to think about that yet.

"Second question: Did you happen to see Rey Mysterio's get-up at Wrestlemania 27? He was wearing a certain patriotic superheroes attire. Do you guys get any money off that?"

Brevoort: I saw a random photo somewhere online, but not the actual appearance. And no, we don't get any money for that.

Finally, X-5 asked, "I have a subscription for the current Captain America comic. When it becomes Captain America and Bucky am I going to need to be reading the new Captain America comic or will the story lines be independent of each other?"

Brevoort: At least at the outset, X-5, the two books should operate independently. Down the road a ways you never know, because we do like to mix and match our titles and storylines from time to time. But that's a problem for another day, and nothing you'll need to worry about in 2011 or early 2012.

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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