Twitter, rings and other things: An interview with Tom Brevoort

One of the most recognizable, and longest-serving, editors at Marvel, Tom Brevoort recently celebrated his 20th anniversary at the company with a promotion to Vice President - Executive Editor. In his two decades with the Direct Market's biggest publisher, Brevoort survived the swinging ax of Marvel's bankruptcy, became known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel history, and was once seen as the leading traditionalist at a "Nu-Marvel" dominated by editors like Marvel Knights' Joe Quesada and former Vertigo editor Axel Alonso. In recent years he's become the pointman for Marvel as we know it, helming such era-defining titles as Civil War, New Avengers, and the current event comic Siege.

But he's also taken on a secondary role, that of superhero comics' most outspoken editorial voice. On his long-running Marvel.com blog and his frequently updated Twitter account, Brevoort has discussed a variety of issues, particularly the competition between Marvel and DC, with attention-getting candor. I myself have frequently covered his commentary on everything from race and gender in superhero comics to the Blackest Night power-ring promotion, and the ensuing comment threads reveal a comics community passionate about what he's saying, both pro and con. Rather than continue to cannibalize Brevoort's existing outlets, I decided to go straight to the source.

I spoke with Brevoort about both sides of his career. We tackled his role as a vocal industry insider: his blog and Twitter, his persona and reader reaction to it, the increasingly thin divide between pro and fan, and even a little mythbusting regarding Marvel's controversial book swap initiative. And we spoke about his editorial role: His place at the forefront of the event-comic era, the rise of the Avengers as superhero comics' biggest franchise, the struggle of smaller books in the face of line-wide mania, what Marvel does best, and what Marvel does badly.

Sean T. Collins: Just the basic facts: How long have you been blogging? How long have you been on Twitter? What attracted you to these formats?

Tom Brevoort: I’ve been doing the Marvel.com blog for, what, something like three or four years now maybe? I’ve been on Twitter for a far shorter time, less than a year I’d reckon. In both cases, they represent good ways of interfacing with the audience of fans in a more casual, more one-to-one manner than is afforded by the print medium, and also in a centralized venue where it’s easy to find me. In the past, I would occasionally comment on assorted message boards whenever something struck my attention, but that was a very haphazard way of communicating with the masses, and also left you wide open for when you were having a busy period and somebody online was saying something that required comment, but you were unable to do so.

Do you see them as a promotional tool? A communications tool? Something more like a journal, allowing you to collect your thoughts and put them down in coherent fashion? All or none of the above?

Really, it’s a little bit of each. Certainly, Twitter is the most casual type of communication. For all that my Tweets sometimes get collected up or run as news pieces or whatnot, they’re really intended to be quick, disposable information hits. So they’re a place where I can play around very free-form. There’s not much expected in terms of content from 140 characters. And it’s a very good way to interact one-on-one with people, though I suspect I’ll hit a critical mass eventually where I’ll be receiving too many Tweets directly to be able to answer all of them. The Blog is meant for slightly weightier topics, as befits the space I’ve got for them. The actual content may be just as goofball, but the presentation of information and the sheer amount I can write on any one topic means that I can get into the crux of an idea that much more deeply there. It’s quick, dirty, fast essay writing.

Which do you prefer at this point?

They do different things. I do find that I’m more likely to tweet at the moment than to blog. Part of that is that I’ve already done more than 600 blog entries, so it becomes difficult to come up with fresh material that’s worth talking about, and that I’m fired up enough about to jam out 1000 words about at the end of a long day. Whereas tweeting is something I can do quickly on my long train ride, even if it’s just retweeting cool stuff that other people have sent my way.

I want to talk a bit about the idea of your online "persona." I suppose that to the extent that I ever thought about the sort of person you were, the impression I had was "genial Marvel loremaster and veteran Marvel staffer." I think your more…combative, blunt, controversial side, whatever adjective you'd like to use, has taken some people aback. Is this something you've given any thought to?

I’d say that some of that is the difference between these assorted forms of media, and which side of me they help (or allow) to be conveyed. Like anybody, I’m a lot of different people, and honestly, I can’t say that I take tweeting very seriously. So to a certain degree, that’s just me having fun, being provocative and seeing if I can get anybody to make an article out of it. (I used to play the same game, for a short time, with the blog, after it was quoted and linked to by Newsarama’s blog a couple of times.) But that tone doesn’t always come across to people, so they may be taken aback, I understand. There’s also the limitation of 140 characters—not a lot of room in that space for a ton of shading or subtlety. But more than anything else, this is a bit of a choice, to be a little more free-wheeling, a little more off-the-wall, and just have a good time with it. And I try not to worry about it too much if people can’t quite figure out the tone.

I'm interested, and a little relieved, to hear that you actually set out for your tweets and posts to become news fodder. As I've told my colleagues, I've been living in fear that you'd block me one day, thus making my Robot 6 gig a lot harder. I'd wondered what your thinking was regarding your tweets becoming "news." But you were up for it all along?

Sure. I tweet or blog or what-have-you with the intention of reaching an audience, and the expectation that what I say is going to be picked up and repeated elsewhere; I’ve been doing this too long not to be aware that that’s going to happen. So no, I didn’t have any problem with you making little stories out of them, so long as you’re not taking anything out of context or misrepresenting whatever foolish thing it was that I said.

One thing I've been impressed by is your willingness to talk candidly about the faults of yourself and your own company. You've directly addressed the inability of the company and its readership to sustain series with non-male, non-American, or non-white leads; you've expressed your embarrassment over your own late books; you've extensively listed the worst comics you ever worked on; you've even made reference to your biggest writer, Brian Michael Bendis's occasional lapses as plotter and as a writer of physical action, albeit in a post that praised his writing's ability to cut to the heart of character and concept. For me, particularly with that last example, that's the sort of thing that makes other, positive critiques more convincing, yet obviously this sort of writing by industry professionals is relatively rare. Why do you feel this is the case, and why do you write the way you do about these issues?

I write about these sorts of things mainly because I can, and because the underlying thoughts and theories are of interest to me. As we’ve moved into a more instantaneous, digital world, the distance between creators and fans has only lessened. The average reader of today knows far more about what’s going on, and is much more interested in the behind-the-scenes drama (or is more likely to be able to get some hint as to what the behind-the-scenes drama is) than the fans of years ago. The Bullpen Bulletins, for example, was progressive for its time, but it didn’t really paint an accurate portrait of what working at Marvel was really like—it was a far more idealized version of reality, much like the comics themselves. But today, the audience is more sophisticated and worldly, and that level of candor comes across as phony, as a put-on.

When it comes to the world of comics, I’ve got a pretty good idea what people are thinking and saying, and I’ve got my own point of view on those issues. I can be just as jaded or cynical as the audience, and I certainly went through a period as a fan when I was the proverbial “last angry young man” about my comics the way I see an entirely new young generation interacting today. So, to me, there’s no point in communication if I can’t speak my mind and be honest. There are always limitations to that, of course—I can’t give away company secrets, I won’t spoil upcoming storylines, and I have to use my own judgment in terms of what names to name. Early on in the blog, I told one or two stories that were accurate from my point of view, but which named names, painting a perhaps unbalanced picture of the people involved. I kind of wish I’d shown a little more restraint at that point (and I have since then), as these were all people I still think fondly of, and who were a help to me over the years.

Regardless of all of these limitations, my operating philosophy in terms of writing online has always been “I’ll never knowingly lie to you.” There may be stuff I can’t or won’t tell you, I’ll certainly obfuscate from time to time in order to maintain story surprises and whatnot, but if I’m going to make a statement, I want to try to be as honest as I can be. This has cheesed off some people at certain times, who didn’t want to grade on the curve for “company secrets” or “story spoilers” and decided that I was and am a big, fat liar—but that’s just the way it goes. I don’t think there’s any weakness or any crime in pointing out the places where a mistake has been made, especially if you’ve learned something from that mistake. I think a blog of all of my great, brilliant comics masterpieces would not only be boring, it’d be short as well.

You mentioned the interest in, and access to, behind-the-scenes info that today's comics readers have. I would say that in comics more than any other art form, the border between professional and audience is remarkably porous. Even putting aside the ease of interaction made possible by the Internet, just think of the level of interaction made possible by the convention circuit -- with the possible exception of that country music Fan Fair thing, there's nothing else like that. Do you think the ability of readers and pros to interact is good or bad for comics? Does it lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement among readers, for example, or does it help them better understand who these creators and editors are and what they're trying to accomplish?

I think it’s both good and bad. It’s good in that it invites reader involvement with what we’re doing, but it can also be bad because it does tend to generate the sort of reader entitlement you speak about—or, more precisely, gives the people who feel that entitlement a worldwide public forum in which to interact with one another and egg each other on. There have always been fans like that, of everything, not just comics, but the internet allows them to connect with like-minded individuals and achieve a sort of critical mass. By and large, our fans are cool, fun, interesting people, and a blast to interact with. But there’s always going to be a more fringe element to any fandom that feels very strongly about the particular issues that are important to them to a disproportionate degree than the mainstream of the readership.

Your line about people deciding you're "a big fat liar" reminds me: When I posted the picture you snapped of Blackest Night "ring books" that ostensibly had been sent in to be swapped for the Deadpool Siege variant, several commenters literally claimed the picture was a hoax of some sort--that you'd procured these books yourself somehow rather than gotten them from a retailer participating in Marvel's trade offer. Elaborate claims of how it would have been impossible for that picture to be legit were made. I was pretty taken aback by it. So this is a two-part question: First, for the record, were those comics sent in by a retailer, or were they books you gathered up yourself, from Marvel staffers' comps, say? And second, assuming the pic was on the up-and-up, I guess I'm just curious as to what you think of there literally being conspiracy theories about stuff that you do.

This is a good example of that kind of thing, I think. Who in the world legitimately believes that I had A) the free time and B) the inclination to need to fake up a photo like that—as though this whole promotion is that important either to me or to Marvel. It’s just a fun thing we’re doing, guys! So yes, those are actual, legitimate covers razor-bladed from the ring-books and sent to us by retailers, from the very first day we began getting them in. We cracked open a bunch, spread them out on the desktop (not terribly well) and I shot the photo using my iPhone camera. All of Marvel doesn’t receive enough DC comps to pull together a pile of stuff that large, and you’re crazy if you think I went out and spent cash money on those books just to dummy up a photo like this. The letter I photographed and sent around from one retailer was real as well, from one of those selfsame packages—I was just careful to make sure to obscure or cut off the guy’s name and account number, so there could be no reprisals or admonishments from anybody, fan, pro or company. But it just goes to show how strongly people want to root for their “team” in these kinds of situations. It feels very much like the fans of sports teams during the playoffs, or the followers of different political factions—a deeply held loyalty that can sometimes crowd out reason in support of “their guys.”

As that picture post indicates, you haven't shied away from tweaking the nose of the competition. Your jibes at DC -- making bets over whose books will run latest, referring to their promotional power rings as "Cracker Jack prizes" that aren't the real business of retailers, joking about their storylines, attempting to deflate their perceived sales success after several strong months thanks to Blackest Night and Batman & Robin -- have been unusually direct, the sort of inter-company elbows that haven't been thrown since the heralded Jemas Era. I've seen you make the argument that competition helps everyone and the equivalent of singing "Kumbaya" helps no one, but at the same time this opens you up to charges that you're kicking around the second-place company while you're on top, or that you're threatened by their recent successes. Why have you been as blunt as you've been on this score?

Honestly, I’ve just kinda been having a laugh. I hope that at least the folks from the DC side of the pond who know me, such as Geoff Johns, get that, and can take it all more-or-less in stride. (I thought his comment about the scarcity of Deadpool covers was very funny.) I think that many readers tend to view these sorts of statements in relation to where their own tastes stand, almost like in a political debate. If you’re a big Marvel booster, then I’m speaking truth to power. If you’re a heavy DC guy, then I’m an asshole or a douchebag. And if you’re in the middle, then you’re in the middle, and maybe something I’ve said gives you some new insight or changes your mind about something. I do think, though, and maybe this is just me, but with the greater almost mathematical interest the internet seems to have for sales numbers and rankings and second printings and all that, it’s perfectly fair of me to point out that, hey, it’s great to have six of the top ten books in the industry, but if your competition is still 50% of the marketplace, that means that a lot of what you’re doing isn’t firing all that well.

I’d like to hope that I’m more reasonable about it than Bill was, but that’s probably a false hope, since I don’t have a good vantage point on myself. If nothing else, the dialogue gets people talking, gets them riled up, gets the readership feeling more invested in comics and the comics community, regardless of where they may stand on the particular issues. (And honestly, I would pick on somebody else if another company had enough market share at this point to be worth commenting on—that would really feel like taking a swipe at the little guy to me.) Anybody who knows me knows that I love the DC characters, and I know that universe backwards and forwards. And I want them to do well, because a healthy comics industry is good for everybody. But at a certain point, you also have to look around and go, “why isn’t this all working better?” I don’t mind it when people do it to Marvel—especially when they have a good point.

In my experience this isn't an industry that handles criticism well. I've seen very big-name creators take criticism and negative commentary very personally, even when it comes from people with little to no influence or impact on their careers. You, on the other hand, are a high-ranking editor at the industry's largest company. How do you feel your willingness to criticize will affect other pros' perception of you? Do you think the industry needs to lighten up, for want of a better phrase?

I can’t say that I’ve given it all that much thought, in that I think a this stage in my life and my career, I’ve built up as much of a track record as anybody possibly can. People in the business, people who’ve worked with me and around me know who I am, what I stand for, and what I’m about. Maybe some of the newer faces entering the industry might be trepidatious I could be misremembering, but I don’t think I’ve been criticizing any creators directly—indirectly, perhaps. I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback when Gail Simone wrote about all of the DC creators I was trashing with my talk about the DC ring books, but if those people feel that way, then they feel that way, and I’ll take Gail’s word for it that there are people who’ve had that reaction. From my point of view, all of the commentary I’ve made about those titles had to do with the promotion, and not at all with the quality of the work within those titles. (We all know and can all agree that good work doesn’t always find enough of an audience to support itself to a desired level, that’s no crime.) And on the other side, there’s certainly no shortage of criticism about me or my books out in the world either—nor should there be, assuming that it’s not just random bashing. On the other hand, I could look back in five years when nobody wants to work with me and realize that this was all a horrible miscalculation. But these are my dice, and I’ll roll ‘em if I choose to.

Shifting gears a bit: Siege is said to be the end of the mega-event era for Marvel, at least in the near term. As an editor you've been at the heart of this new method of storytelling and publishing. I'm curious as to what you saw as the pros and cons of the model, particularly in contrast with the less continuity-based model of the early '00s, in which Marvel basically gave its creators free rein to take the books they were working on in directions that suited them. (I'm simplifying, I know, but that was my perception at the time, and largely what brought me back to superhero comics after some time away. If I got it wrong, feel free to correct me.) What did creators, especially, gain and lose by participating in line-wide events? As an editor, what do you hope to see emerge now that that era is wrapping up?

Well, only time will tell if this era is really and truly wrapping up, but putting that aside for the moment: I think it’s a difference in terms of focus, and a difference in terms of what the audience wanted and wants at any given time. Like a pendulum, there’s always a swing back and forth between styles of storytelling—I used to call the two poles Classique and Nouveau, which summed up a lot of different aspects, possibly too many. I think the pros are that the big crossover, if done correctly (and I don’t know that anybody’s eve quite done it 100% correctly) is the ultimate culmination of the shared-universe structure of comic book publishing at the big companies. That 10-year-old dream is still as true today as it ever was: what if there was one big comic that had all of the best characters in it fighting the biggest battle ever for the greatest stakes imaginable? That’s the drive and the desire for a crossover. The cons, of course, are that they require an awful lot more coordination, and that they tend to blur different and distinctive voices into an overall mélange. We’re much better these days about making sure that an event story is somebody’s vision, but even within that, there are compromises that inevitably have to be made. Also, the crossover/event is an invitation to sloppy or misguided storytelling: don’t have a story that can pull readers into your title? Just tie-in to whatever big event is going on! When the Marvel books were run more individually, each one could be more focused and more specific, more the vision of a particular crew of collaborators. But eventually, in not that long of a time when you look back at it, the marketplace dictated otherwise. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that DC began to have a lot of success around the time of Identity Crisis and its aftermath. Besides the fact that it was a big, earth-shattering story by a top-tier creative team, it was also perfect counter-programming for what Marvel was then publishing. You want a big, shared universe of super heroes? Then step right this way! So I don’t think we’re ever going to see the end of these sorts of stories—they’re simply too popular, and at a time when fans are more concerned than ever that their money is being spent on something that matters, event storylines tend to stand the greatest chance of paying off on that promise for the greatest number of people. I think we’ll see more smaller-scale events, such as the Necrosha storyline over in the X-titles, in terms of scale, but they’re never going away entirely.

The Avengers were the major players in Marvel's event-comic era; indeed they appear to have taken over the flagship status previously held by the X-Men and Spider-Man. I've always wondered if this was by happy accident -- whether internally you felt that they simply connected to the zeitgeist in some way -- or by conscious planning -- perhaps to offer support for Marvel Studios, which controlled the film rights to these characters as opposed to Spidey or the mutants. What made the '00s the decade of the Avengers? Do you see this continuing?

I think it was a nice combination of elements, rather than anything that could either be completely planned, nor anything that could completely be lucked into. A lot of it, quite honestly, was Marvel choosing to put more of its resources into the mainline Marvel Universe and into the Avengers specifically. In the early years of the decade, when the Ultimate universe was launching, a lot of time and attention and promotion was spent on both establishing it, and then keeping it a vital, exciting showpiece line. That meant that most often, the top talents were focused towards the Ultimate Universe, not to the exclusion of everything else, but certainly to a great extent. The same thing was true in the previous decade of the X-Men line. These things tend to go in waves. And while this was happening, the remaining titles were largely left to fend for themselves—it’s not that they weren’t promoted, or didn’t have good people working on them. But they weren’t the belle of the ball, weren’t the focus of everybody’s attention. And at a certain point, the decision was made to spend some love on Avengers and the other core titles, and change that up a little bit. New Avengers was such a simple idea that I knew it would work from the very first—it’s the super hero team concept boiled down to its truest essence: all of the best characters in one comic book. (Depending on your particular tastes, you could argue if all of the New Avengers characters are indeed the best characters, but that’s where the discussion started.) After that, it’s all down to execution and reader interest. You can put the best people onto a book, and sometimes the readership just doesn’t want it, or gets sick of it quickly. In the case of Avengers, we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to sustain interest in the characters and the storylines for a good long while, and hopefully will be able to continue to do so for some time to come; I think it can only help that there’s an Avengers movie on the credible horizon.

This is kind of a basic question, but what do you think Marvel does best right now? What do you think it does worst? Do you look around the industry and see things that make you say "That's the sort of book I wish we could do," or "That's the sort of creator I wish we could work with," or "That's the sort of business relationship with creators I wish we could have," or anything like that?

I think that, by and large, when it comes to monthly super hero comics and attracting a contemporary audience and reflecting the real world out there in our fiction, Marvel does it and has done it very well for a very long time. We’ve made great strides in terms of bookstore penetration, in getting comics into Wal-Mart, and into Scholastic Book Club, and things of that nature. Marvel’s also been very effective at what the business majors call “vertical integration”, in that our film people talk to our comics people, who talk to our licensing people, and so on. We’re a very stripped-down, very integrated place, and so there’s both a fundamental level of respect for publishing and the fact that all of this cool stuff grows out of it, and an overall consistency of approach and messaging, regardless of whether what we’re talking about is a comic, a television show, a toy, or whatnot; they’ll all be different, since they have to serve different needs and different audiences, but the thought process and the philosophy is very much the same. What could we be better at? I think we could be better at drawing in and maintaining a wider, more diverse audience, and servicing those titles that are critical darlings, but that can never seem to find sufficient traction on the sales charts. And yet, on the other hand, I do think there’s something simple and straightforward and brilliant about Marvel publishing being a meritocracy, where everything we publish needs to earn its keep without exception. That means that some books I like may hit the axe sooner than I’d like, but it also keeps everybody working hard and on their toes—there’s not a lot of dead weight to be found at Marvel because of this. Also, I wish we could crack the plastic ring market, as there seems to be a lot of interest there.

Regarding critical darlings that don't sell, The Comics Reporter's Tom Spurgeon recently said something that resonated with me and a lot of other commentators, prompted specifically by the uncertain future of Incredible Hercules: "I hate to backseat drive companies because I've barely made like sixteen dimes from working in comic books, but at some point it seems that if well-regarded series after well-regarded series is broken on the rocks of a market that won't respond to them, you should start to look at changing the game board to be more receptive to such series as opposed to picking up a game piece you think might work better." I must admit that from my perspective as a reader and critic, a market that's tailor-made for selling superhero comics and yet still has so much trouble supporting books like Captain Britain & MI-13, Agents of Atlas, Incredible Hercules and so on is a broken market. I can't help but wonder if the emphasis on top-down line-wide storytelling suffocates the mid-list, no matter how acclaimed those books might be. Do you think I'm on the right track, or do you think the "meritocracy" theory of how Marvel works is sufficient to explain the fate of books like those?

Tom runs a great site, I really love it and check in with it regularly. But like many comics pundits, including fans who don’t have columns and even many industry insiders, everybody can point to the problem and conjecture unrealistic solutions. But the market we have is the market we have, and has been for decades now—it’s the marketplace we made, and it’s a very Darwinistic beast. When it comes to titles like Herc and MI-13 and the other sorts of books that used to get this sort of online attention and love (things like Priest’s Black Panther), these tend to be series that appeal in a very strong way to fans who’ve been reading comics for a good long while, that resonate with them in a particular way and scratch a very specific sort of an itch. These tend to be fans that are looking for something more, something different, in their comics, that have become in a large way bored of the same old thing. But the same old thing is the same old thing because people, as a whole, like it. As Joe Q likes to say, readers vote with their dollars and with their feet. So the more challenging books, or the more offbeat books, or the books furthest from the mainstream are just inevitably going to have a harder time capturing enough of an audience to sustain themselves—the very elements that make them appealing to the audience that loves them is what put the wider audience off of them, and were you to make them more appealing to a larger cross-section, you would likely ruin them for that core audience. That’s a very typical phenomenon in other fields, such as the world of music, where as soon as the quirky little act that only a few aficionados knows about hits the big time and gains a mass following, they’re shunned by their original followers as sell-outs, or “not as good as they used to be.” Some of the appeal of following a cult series is the very fact that it’s a cult series, that you’re one of the few insiders savvy enough to have found it and to “get it.”

Also, and this is a different way of looking at things than we’re used to thinking about in the world of comics publishing: maybe not every series needs to run on indefinitely. That tends to be viewed as the benchmark of success (and I use it myself), but when it comes to something cool and successful and different, I think that it’s perhaps better to have it for a while and for it to go away being just what it was intended to be than for it to go on forever.

Regardless, I don’t think the problem is per se that the marketplace is broken, I think it’s much more a reflection of the fact that the core audience for comics is sticking with the medium for longer periods of time, and comes to desire and require new and different things to satisfy their cravings and to get them excited again.

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Tags: marvel, tom brevoort, twitter, fandom, comics industry, interview

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