Talking crossovers, relaunches, and creative risks with Marvel Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso

Talking crossovers, relaunches, and creative risks with Marvel Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso

Since becoming an editor for DC Comics’ mature readers Vertigo imprint in 1994, Axel Alonso has worked behind the scenes on some of the most distinctive comics of the past 20 years. His work editing books like Preacher and 100 Bullets at Vertigo grabbed the attention of Marvel Comics in 2000, and he took on a position at DC’s top competitor reviving the Spider-Man titles and editing controversial books like X-Force and Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather. In 2011, Alonso was promoted to the position of editor-in-chief at Marvel, and he is currently overseeing the Marvel Now! relaunch that has proven a critical, commercial, and creative success for the publisher. He chats with The A.V. Club about making the transition from Vertigo to Marvel, the importance of creative risk, and what he sees for the future of the company.

The A.V. Club: Were comics a part of your upbringing at all?

Axel Alonso: I grew up in San Francisco, California. I was a young boy, meaning 5 or 6 years old, learning to read. I was introduced to comics by my grandmother who would walk me home from school every Friday, and would buy me a couple comic books at the five and dime. So every Friday I would pick a couple comics off the rack; I’d normally find a cool cover or flip through a comic book and see a cool fight, and that would be the one I would bring home. The concept of being only about Marvel or only about DC is completely ridiculous; I grew up reading everything. My favorite characters spanned even Charlton Comics, and I’m a big fan of Yang, the bald-headed kung fu guy. So I grew up reading comics like that. I gave them up as a teenager for a brief period of time and rediscovered them in college. I was on an Alaskan fishing boat—I would’ve been 19—and the boat I was on was subject to food-and-game inspection.

I found a stack of magazines and comic books that I had previously not looked at because there was no time. It was mostly pornography, but there were two comic books in there that had no cover, and it just turned out that they were two issues of the Alan Moore Swamp Thing. It was the story of a serial killer who remembered his victims from their eyes, and maybe it was the sleep deprivation from working on the boat, or maybe it was the way that life was on the water, but comics blew me away so I was convinced that I had missed out on six or seven years’ worth of incredible comic books. And when I went back to school—I was in college at UC Santa Cruz—I went to Atlantis Fantasyworld, as the retailer is proud to say, and got all my first comics again. So I got back into comics again as a 19-year-old. I was big on punk rock, and during the period of time I didn’t read comics, I got into that whole California SoCal punk scene. So artists like Raymond Pettibon, it wasn’t a surprise that his art borders on comic book. I dabbled in a little bit of that stuff, so I was always into that weird, pulpy aesthetic when I got back into comics.

AVC: How did you get involved with Vertigo?

AA: I moved to New York after college and worked as a journalist, so I did a lot of reporting for the dailies, and I even worked for Editor & Publisher magazine briefly. I went to Columbia journalism school just because I felt like I hit a ceiling in journalism. I applied, they gave me a partial scholarship, so I went. When I got out of school, I entered into a job market that was worse than when I had gone to school. [Laughs.] I saw an ad in The New York Times that DC Comics was hiring editors. So, just out of curiosity I sent in my résumé, and I surprisingly got a call from an editor, the late Lou Stathis. He called me in because he had read an article I’d written and wanted to meet me. He knew my name, and it was just one of those things where if I had a common name, none of this would’ve happened. 

We talked about everything, and in the article I guess one of the guys I quoted had indicted himself as an idiot, and Lou loved it because this guy had stolen his girlfriend. So I had a leg up on the competition, and he hired me on the spot. I wasn’t even convinced I wanted to take the job, because the pay was so bad and it wasn’t a lateral move for me. But I took the job, and I liked what Vertigo was doing. I guess the one thing for me at Vertigo is that as much respect I had, as much enjoyment I got as a reader from something like Sandman, I never felt that that was in my wheelhouse, in terms of references. I didn’t think I would be a good editor for Neil Gaiman, I had nothing to contribute to that kind of book because I had never really leaned on fantasy or even dark fantasy. I liked horror and I loved pulp crime and I loved B-movies, so I looked to carve that kind of ground for myself at Vertigo. And that’s what I ended up doing, a lot of books that people jokingly called the “gun in the mouth” books.

AVC: What lessons did you learn at Vertigo that you carried with you once you became an editor at Marvel?

AA: I don’t think I would’ve ever been prepared to do superhero comics had I not worked for Vertigo. It was an invaluable experience, because I functioned doing genre work, doing stories. I work within very broad parameters. For me, Vertigo was not only a place I could develop my own editorial voice; I found a way to bring my own passion about art and politics to the table. And I think that helped me transition to Marvel when Bill Jemas, who was then the publisher of Marvel, came to me and asked if I’d come to Marvel. I was actually contemplating a job offer from a book publisher at the time, and they had made a very attractive offer. So when Bill approached me, I was kind of cocky and wasn’t interested. I think that made him want me more. I remember him saying to me, “We’ve got a Spider-Man movie that has been optioned and is in preproduction, and it’s going to come out in a couple years. I need you to come in here with a group of other people and make Spider-Man sell as much as we think it should in a diverse market.” I told him, “You’re crazy, I haven’t read Spider-Man since I was 13.” He sent me a bunch of Xeroxes of Spider-Man. “Read up, young man!” I think what Vertigo enabled me to do was approach comics purely as stories. That allowed me to look at Spider-Man as being an iconic mythological figure, and even if I didn’t have deep-seated affection for him the way I did for someone like, say, The Hulk, I would be able to access him as a character and make decisions about who should write and draw him and understand what the mythology was about and respect that. Which is really what being an editor is about, especially with superhero comics.

AVC: There was a certain amount of risk involved in those first projects at Marvel like Amazing Spider-Man and X-Force. With X-Force, it was getting rid of the Comics Code, and with Spider-Man you had Aunt May finding out early in the run that Peter was Spider-Man. Do you think that it’s important to have a certain level of risk when approaching a new project?

AA: Without a doubt. I know when I was hired by Bill to come to Marvel that he wanted me to take risks, he wanted his editors to take risks, and use their Rolodexes. Joe [J. Michael] Straczynski happened to be writing a book called Rising Stars at Image [Comics], which was my favorite superhero comic book at the time. He was someone I was very attracted to, but I didn't know if he had a sense of humor. Rising Stars was many things, but it wasn't funny. So I just gambled, but I thought Joe Straczynski would be a really good fit for Spider-Man, and when I was offered to take over the Spider-Man line I decided to keep Paul Jenkins on at Peter Parker: Spider-Man because he was telling young adult-friendly Spider-Man stories. It didn’t wander into quite the dark terrain that I knew Joe would go, the more mythological terrain, and then I started that anthology book Tangled Web, to turn loose my Vertigo anthology collaborators and new guys on Spider-Man stories. 

Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo doing Flowers For Algernon starring the Rhino; Eduardo Risso doing the Kingpin; Richard Corben doing The Hulk; the gay Rawhide Kid, which got more press than any comic book [up to that point]. The press around gay Rawhide was crazy, and one of my favorite moments was, I was in an IKEA, and a woman walks up to me like she knows me, I’ve never met her before, and she says, “Are you Axel Alonso?” And I said yeah, and she says, “I'm Cathy Renna from GLAAD.” She’s the [news media director] of GLAAD, and she says, “I just wrote an op-ed in the Daily News about how much I liked Rawhide Kid.” And I thought she was going to say I was a homophobe or something like that, but she says, “I love that book, and what’s so great about it is half my friends said, ‘I hate that guy, he’s so stereotypical,’ and the other half said, ‘I know that guy!’” I liked that book because that was one of those things [where] there were a lot of spears thrown at it, bullets aimed at it, people assumed things about it before they read it. Ditto with the black Captain America book, the Kyle Baker and Robert Morales book Truth. It’s the Captain America mythology, and we just dug behind the curtain. A lot of people thought we were burning bridges. No, we’re building bridges; this is about American history. This is a book that places Steve Rogers in historical context. This is about building bridges and looking behind the curtain, not looking to divide people. 

X-Force probably stands as the book I’m most fond of to this day. Bill Jemas came to me and said, “I like what you’ve done on Spider-Man and Hulk. I’d like you to do an X-Men book.” I said I never read X-Men, and he said, “Well just take a title, any title, and do something with it. Anything you want with it. There’s no place to go but up.” What happened was Peter Milligan was in town and we went drinking. I told him I took a title, X-Force, and we can do anything we want with it. Let’s take a look at the mutant metaphor, the whole notion. I feel like if you’ve got wings, if you go walking down the street, let’s say you go walking down Times Square, people aren’t going to be terrified of you; they’re going to want you to endorse their product, they’re going to want to date you, they’re going to want to fuck you, they’re going to want to be you. And he sort of talked himself into doing it even though he had rejected me at the outset. By the end of the meeting, we beated out the entire first issue, which was predicated upon introducing a character as the central lead—the guy that you love, the Tom Cruise of the movie, heart of the book—and then gutting him like a fish and starting all over the next issue. We did the issue, the Comics Code rejected us on several fronts, and Bill said, “You know, I don’t want to change this. Let’s go without the Code. In fact, do we even need the Code?” The next thing you know, we’ve abandoned the Comics Code. It was just sort of an antiquated, unnecessary organization.

It was a lot of fun, and it was one of those things where I was grateful to Marvel for its flexibility in terms of allowing people to play with the mythology the way that they did. It’s a much beloved book, and it’s the first superhero comic book to be reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, and it received a stellar review. The comic before that was Maus, so it’s a pretty significant moment, I was really proud of that. Also that Rawhide Kid was in The New Yorker, which I thought was very fun. To predate Brokeback Mountain and to find yourself there was pretty cool.

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AVC: Were there any challenges in that transition from Vertigo to superhero comics?

AA: For starters, I couldn’t have cursing and nudity. But part of it is, there were new challenges because you’re dealing with characters who’ve been around for so long and they mean so much to so many people, generations of people, of all ages. When I was editing Preacher, I knew roughly what the demographic of reader was, and that was a creator-owned property, so I was there just to make sure that Garth [Ennis] didn’t get DC closed down by the government. With Spider-Man, the challenges were finding ways to push the boundaries without alienating the core fan base, or finding a way through the books to make sure that there was a read for everyone. I always hoped that Amazing Spider-Man would draw one audience, Peter Parker would draw another, and Tangled Web would be for the most adventurous readers of all, people who may not give a shit about Spider-Man, but might be attracted to reading a story by the creator, whether it was Paul Pope or Eduardo Risso or Garth Ennis, people you wouldn’t associate with Spider-Man, coming in and doing a story that took place in this world. Spider-Man is more a shadow on the wall than an actual character; he’s rarely if ever the lead guy in his own book. Turning guys like Paul Pope and Darwyn Cooke loose on Spider-Man was a real pleasure.

AVC: How have your responsibilities changed since becoming editor-in-chief?

AA: As editor-in-chief I play much more of a macro role, so it’s like being up above the globe looking down on it and seeing how all the nation-states fit together, and on occasion working the minutiae. So it’s a very different challenge. I do very much miss line-editing. I’m currently line-editing one third-party book that I brought in, but I’m not line-editing any [Marvel] books right now. I haven’t for some time, and it's a very different situation for me. I do miss the sensation of receiving a raw manuscript or pitch and working it right through to the end. But obviously I think I’ve got the coolest job in the world, because the buck ends with me when it comes to the Marvel universe. I have to make sure that the right decisions are being made. I find it an exciting period right now because I think Marvel is creatively prospering. We set a goal for ourselves to play a game of creative musical chairs with Marvel Now! That was one of the things I wanted to do, to shake up the creative pool, and we used Avengers Vs. X-Men, that big event, to put an endnote to what I thought we had done for the first 10 years of new Marvel under Joe [Quesada] and so on. 

That’s like my line in the sand, where we brought to a head some of the things we’d been exploring and then started the new themes in a new world in the aftermath. That started with Marvel Now!, which is the game of musical chairs, where creators who have enjoyed long, prosperous runs on titles—like Brian [Bendis] on Avengers—would switch and take on new challenges and new books. And the results have been great. We’ve had a creative resurgence, certainly a financial resurgence, and what excites me personally is the fact that now we’re taking some of these characters like the Guardians Of The Galaxy and Nova, who aren’t household names or cult favorites, and we’re finding a way to make them more relevant to the reader. Guardians debuted as a No. 1 book. And as we said over and over, the Guardians and Nova, these cosmic characters will be major players in the event Infinity we’re doing that Jonathan [Hickman] is writing. So what I like about this is the fact that there had been periods where we were just relying heavily on the top end of the catalog to drive our sales, but now we’re spreading it thinner and we’ve got books like Guardians and Nova launching that are really hitting. I have no doubt that a year or two from now people will view the Inhumans the same way. They won’t just be a weird little group of characters that a dozen people know and like. You can’t ignore them at that point; they’re too relevant to the Marvel universe to ignore.

AVC: What do you think have been the bigger risks that have paid off with the relaunch?

AA: I guess you have to start with the major franchises. I thought Brian Bendis would be a good fit for X-Men because he’s talented in writing young characters, point-of-view characters, and ensemble work. Having been an X-Men group editor, I could imagine him coming in and owning these characters and creating a whole new dynamic among them and really making that aspect of the book what people are coming back for. Really, X-Men is 25 percent action, 75 percent soap opera, and he writes soap operas so damn well. There was certainly an element of risk; we knew going in that people were going to yell and scream and say how much they hated the idea, but obviously it’s worked out and then some. I think the scope that Jonathan Hickman brings to Avengers is everything I hoped he would bring, and in fact the ideas that he had for Avengers were what positioned him to write Infinity, because all of the larger meta ideas he had bubbling in his brain come to a head in Infinity. So having him on the core franchise with the big ideas allows him to be someone to build larger stuff for everyone to partake of down the road. But there are also little surprises like what Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn have done on Deadpool. There’s a real Deadpool resurgence going on between the core title and the Deadpool Kills… line that Cullen Bunn is writing and is a massive hit for us. Who would’ve thought that an indie writer and a stand-up comedian would find an audience like that for Deadpool? Obviously they were joined by Tony Moore for the launch, but I’m very happy with stuff like that.

AVC: What are some of the challenges of planning an event like Infinity and organizing the aftermath of those events?

AA: This is a unique industry, a unique medium, because when Seinfeld caps its 10th season and goes off into the sunset, or Friends—I never watched either of those shows, I despise both of them—but when those shows end, everybody raises the champagne glasses and says, “Wow, what an amazing accomplishment.” But at the end of the day, they’re doing maybe 25, 26 episodes per year over 10 years, and they’re controlling one small universe, the Seinfeld universe, which is two rooms. It’s five or six characters in an ensemble. In comics, we’re trying to make sure that The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, and Game Of Thrones all can coexist, and that they all fit into some larger universe. It’s like we have to find a way to coordinate it all for our readers so people understand that whatever the dwarf in Game Of Thrones is doing doesn’t offset something Omar in The Wire is doing. That’s the challenge. It’s not a burden, but it’s a challenge. 

We do these big editorial retreats about four times a year where we get together, all of our core writers and editors, and we just start mapping things out, literally mapping them out, and seeing things line up, and it allows us to anticipate car crashes and stop them from happening. It allows us to be able to build things that we never expected would happen in the room, Frankenstein using his brain. It’s a matter of working as a team to understand that we’re all on the same team, and we’re trying to make sure that all these microcosms can coexist and form a larger macrocosm, if that’s a word. At the center of almost all the big core events we do is VP for Publishing Tom Brevoort, and he’ll forget more about comics history than I’ll ever learn. He’s just one of those guys who has an encyclopedic knowledge of comics, but also seems to be aware of everything that’s happening in the here and now as well to cut off any potential problems and make sure that all the plates keep spinning. He’s invaluable and allows someone like myself to step back and take much more of a macro role of looking toward the future and seeing what can come out of the events rather than dwelling on the minutiae of what’s going on in the present.

AVC: Comics are also unique in that the fans expect a level of interaction from the people that are in charge. You’ve had your CBR column for a few years now. You don’t have film executives answering fan questions every single week. How important is fan interaction to you, and do you take into account what fans are saying in editorial decisions at all?

AA: Fan interaction is very important. This may sound like a contradiction, but by the same token an editor can’t be swayed by fan hatred. If we made decisions based on what the Internet said, for instance, we’d all be out of a job. And actually I’ve known at least two writers who ignored my warnings or other editors’ warnings, who were not equipped to read the Internet. Because [after] they read the Internet, they had those voices in their heads, they looked to prove everybody wrong, they looked to police people, and it ended up killing their careers. At the end of the day, you have to trust the voice in your head that you’re telling a good story. You need to be able to stand up to those people who come at you and tell you you’re wrong, that hate you for doing it and trust your gut, trust the people whose opinions most matter to you. Of course every once in a while, you might be wrong. But you can’t be afraid to make that decision, you can’t be afraid to get yelled at or have sharply worded essays about your work on the Internet or elsewhere. It doesn’t work that way. That said, I love it when people come up to me at cons and talk with me. I’ve definitely never had anyone say anything as mean as they said about me on paper, for starters. But normally if they’ve got something negative to say, it’s a good dialogue. It’s a back and forth, not just someone in the basement typing furiously in the protection of anonymity; it’s someone who really has an opinion and wants to talk with you right then and there in the whites of your eyes. [Fan interaction] is important, but you can’t be shackled by it; you can’t feel constrained by it.

AVC: How does Marvel go about recruiting new talent? Do you keep up with independent titles and DC books?

AA: We always keep an eye on the indie press to see people who have authentic voices emerging. Matt Kindt would be an example of that. Gerry Duggan, who’s writing Deadpool, did Infinite Horizon. I was introduced to him and Brian Posehn through Rick Remender, and we were all talking and we said, “You guys are pretty funny, you should write Deadpool.” And they said, “Hey we’ll do that.” It’s no secret that we perpetually end up working with novelists. From Marjorie Liu and Gregg Hurwitz, we’ve worked with any number of novelists. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. But it starts with the indies. People that go out and make their own comics, the guy who does The Adventures Of Dr. McNinja [Christopher Hastings] did a couple of issues of Deadpool for us. People that go off and make [comics], that’s what you do as an audition for the job.

AVC: Is there anything you can tease about Infinity, anything about the aftermath of that?

AA: With Infinity—and it sounds like bullshit but it isn’t—this is the most Marvel universe event we’ve done ever. It’s an event that will involve earthbound and cosmic heroes in ways we’ve never done before. In most of our events there’s an inciting incident; in AVX there was the arrival of the Phoenix Force, and this celestial bomb is heading toward Earth and the heroes have a different opinion about what to do about it. Everything starts from there, but Infinity is one where there are a couple stories going on, both of which I think dovetail beautifully. So it’s a very different reading experience. It will involve all of the Marvel heroes, and it will show once again how central the cosmic characters are for the future of our publishing and beyond. 

In terms of what you can look for when we talk about the other side, we’re going to have a new power player in the Marvel universe in the form of the Inhumans. This is a society of superpowered characters who are unlike anything in the Marvel universe. To me they are the outcasts’ outcasts. Whereas Spider-Man or the Hulk were created by science, or the X-Men were the next stage of evolution, the Inhumans are genetic mistakes; there’s a big existential “fuck you” at the core. They were created by an alien race as a weapon and then abandoned by that race when they didn’t like what they saw, so they’re left knowing that. They were meant to be powerful, but their gods have abandoned them. So what does this mean to have this happen? And if you know anything about their mythology, even the way they come about getting their transformation—if you’re Spider-Man or Bruce Banner, you get bit by a spider or zapped by gamma rays and you turn into a superpowered being. You know you’re a human, you’re just powered. If you’re a mutant, one day you wake up and you’ve got this strange new power. If you’re an Inhuman, it’s different because there’s a rite of passage called Teregenesis wherein you willingly expose yourself to this vapor that will then show you who you are. Now that might be glorious, or it might not be, it could be pretty mediocre, underwhelming, but you do that. Sort of like a game of existential Russian roulette. You pull the trigger, and you have no idea what’s going to come out. It could be a bullet, or it could be the most amazing thing. You don’t know, but that’s what you’re doing. That’s also relevant to each and every character who knows themselves to be an Inhuman or thinks themselves to be an Inhuman. 

So look for them to be major players in the Marvel universe, and as we slowly integrate them into the Marvel universe and we see their potential numbers, there’s a rich, dark history that precedes them. They predate superheroes and they predate mutants. So the question is where have they been and how are they organized and stratified? You’re going to learn that there’s not a lot of harmony among them. The Inhumans are ripe source material, and in gossip columns and elsewhere people have talked about the Game Of Thrones aspect, but frankly I think my favorite part of Game Of Thrones is the intrigue. I remember watching Game Of Thrones season one and going, “Wow, so much has taken place before this, but I don’t feel like I picked up season four. I want to know more about these wars and the backstabbing. Tell me more.” And that’s what we’re going to be doing with the Inhumans: You’re going to learn there’s so many of them, they’re so powerful, they’ve been around for so long scattered here and there, and they don’t all like one another. There’s a whole secret history that we’ll learn about, and it will affect everyone.

AVC: What are your goals for Marvel in the upcoming year and Marvel Now! Wave Two?

AA:  Speaking of Marvel Now!, we’re poised for a new round of titles that we’ll be announcing soon, slowly, and like with Marvel Now! [Wave] One, we’ll be rolling them out over a three- to four-month period so that people can process them, buy them at their leisure, build confidence in them. Like with Marvel Now! Wave One, look for some very eye-opening announcements. Look for us to take some chances with creator pairings. Look for characters people have wanted to see back in action. What I loved about Marvel Now!, if you look at it, with the exception of one book [Joe Keatinge and Richard Elson's Morbius: The Living Vampire], they’ve all stuck. We didn’t launch all of these books, and then three or four months later 75 percent of them had new creative teams or 50 percent of them were gone and replaced by something new. They’re all under steady direction, and that’s because we believe in the writers and the artists. They’re writer-driven, and we pair them with the right artist and the right rotation of artists so that the books can prosper. I think with Marvel Now! Wave Two, look for a lot more of that. In terms of the future, creatively, look for an expansion of the Marvel universe. Look for us to prove to readers how our catalog goes much deeper than The Avengers, the X-Men, Hulk. We go deeper than that. And without naming names, I will say look for the Inhumans to become characters who everyone in the Marvel universe knows and understands and wants to know more about, as we start to peel back the onion of what this society is, and show how powerful they are. They better take note of them. 

Business-wise, and I guess this overlaps with creative, look for an expansion of our digital initiatives, what we’re going with Infinite Comics and Project Gamma, which is bringing audio to the Infinite Comic. They’re specifically created [for digital]; this is not just taking comic book pages and formatting it for a screen. This is writers and artists working to create a uniquely different way of telling and reading a comic book story. We’re not afraid to take chances and make mistakes. Some will stick, some won’t. Some experiments will work, some won’t, but it will just help us to refine our game like practicing a sport or practicing piano. We have a weekly Infinite Comic starting up with Wolverine’s series, and there’s three more to come. And we’re going to keep doing these as complementary events. We’ve brought in an audio component, which soon people will be able to experience.

So look for us to continue to pioneer how comics are being read, indeed how comic book stories are being told. Initially there was the comic panel, the little cartoon, and then it expanded to the comic strip, which was three to four images going in a horizontal line. That was the next stage of comic storytelling. Then someone conceived of the comic book page, and you had movement that went horizontal and vertical. Artists and writers considered the entire page, and people like Jim Steranko and Neal Adams pioneered how you look at the page. Then Chris Ware came along. But the last few decades we’ve existed in those parameters, in that frame, and that’s changing now. We’re not limited by it, and there are new ways of experiencing reading comics. I think that’s something that’s going to change: With the expansion of digital comics in terms of sales and popularity, I think it could be a game changer because of the way distribution will change content.

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