This "Shotcaller" feature appears in Complex's June/July 2011 issue.
When Axel Alonso joined Marvel Comics as a senior editor in September 2000, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy and in danger of folding. Along with then editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, he led a revival, creating the mature Marvel MAX line, attracting talented indie creators like Matt Fraction, and overseeing the ultra-important Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men series. The turnaround led to Walt Disney’s 2009 acquisition of Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion. This January, Alonso was promoted to editor-in-chief as Quesada moved on to chief creative officer. Complex sat down with the man charged with running Marvel’s publishing house to talk digital comics, diversity, and doubters.
Interview by Justin Monroe (40yardsplash)
Complex: What pressures do you feel taking over as Marvel’s editor-in-chief?
Axel Alonso: We always joke that working for Marvel is like working for the Yankees. Anything less than the championship isn’t acceptable. On the publishing side, we are the market leader, and it’s surprising when we have any competition in any way, shape, or form.
You’ve openly admitted that you don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of comics. What is your response to people who don’t like your promotion?
The definition of a dumb editor-in-chief is someone who goes into a room thinking that they’re the smartest about everything. This is a collaborative thing. You’ve got some incredibly capable people at Marvel, who all specialize in things. There’s nobody more qualified in orchestrating an event than Tom Brevoort. No one. Knowing that and allowing him to flourish where he needs to flourish, and allowing younger editors who are finding their own voices to flourish, that’s my challenge.
How do you balance back-stories and keeping characters fresh?
You have to boil down these characters to their immutable truths and figure out what their essential stories are, and then be willing to have people yell at you when you do something new and it contradicts that one obscure story from their past. A long time ago, I was under pressure to have the Hulk kill someone and I wouldn’t do it, because once the Hulk crosses that line, once Bruce Banner wakes up covered in blood wondering what the hell happened and realizes his alter-ego killed someone, it changes him. He has a responsibility to deal with this, to atone for it. It’s arguable that if he knows that he can kill again, he will make sure he’s not around to do that.
Single comics can cost cash-strapped readers as much as $3.99 nowadays. How do you address this?
I think the thing to stress is that the people who are writing and drawing and coloring your comics are, in most occasions, the crème de la crème. These people are not underpaid for what they do. You get what you pay for at the end of the day. What people resent is when they spend $3.99 or $2.99 on a comic book they don’t think was worth the money. Obviously there are limitations to what we can do on the print end, there’s printing costs and all these other things. The wild west of new media is that at some point soon I hope we’re able to find a way to distribute these comics at an affordable price point, possibly with added-value material, that can make the download of a comic book a very attractive option and a very affordable option for the reader.
I went to see a band called Black Flag and discovered punk rock. I didn’t grow a Mohawk, but I think that attitude has carried into my comics.
One of the things that’s alarming for us is that a comic book, on the same date it comes out, will be available for free through pirate sites, and the quality of that scan will be incredible. We need to provide comics to the reader at premium quality and an affordable price with added material, that additional hook that incentivizes people to give them a try.
Do you think print will ever be obsolete?
I cannot imagine a situation in which the print aspect of our business is obsolete. I know that there are books that I will need as a hardcover for my shelf, I need the experience of holding it in my hands. That said, I don’t need that for everything.
What are some interests that inform you as an EIC?
I’m a hip-hop head. It’s all I listen to. I grew up on R&B. The way I kept from getting my ass kicked in school was being good at basketball. Then I went to see a band called Black Flag and discovered punk rock. I didn’t grow a Mohawk, but the attitude was something I got into. It gave me a sense of cynicism. I didn’t enjoy Rambo, I didn’t like Chuck Norris, I didn’t like Journey until I was 40. I think that attitude has carried into my comics, whether it’s in Truth, the black Captain America book, or Rawhide Kid, the gay cowboy, or X-Force: The Hostile Takeover.
Do you still listen to hip-hop?
I fell in love with Drake's music last summer. I’m all over Lupe Fiasco’s latest record. Clipse is my favorite. My favorite DJ of all time is Pete Rock. When Pete Rock came through these offices, people said they’ve never seen me smile that brightly; it was literally like watching God part the clouds and come on down.