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.
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.
Why do you think the comic industry has been so slow to reflect the diversity of its readers?
We’re very mindful of this, and I think we’ve made incredible inroads with it. One thing that people don’t know is how well-represented Hispanics and blacks are, at least in the artistic ranks. There are so many incredible Hispanic artists in this industry right now, from Humberto Ramos to Paco Medina. Joe Quesada’s Cuban, I’m half-Mexican, and it goes without saying that we’re interested in having voices represented from across the spectrum. We certainly have more female writers than we’ve had in the past, but the key thing is these people need to emerge. We need to believe in them, and we need to be able to sell them. I finally got my Mexican superheroes, the luchador-inspired Zapata Brothers (right), a few years ago, and that felt good. But it has to come organically. It’s not something you can force.
You have a reputation for being great managing writers and artists. What is the key to that?
The most important thing is that you have each other’s trust, that you [as a creator] understand when I’m coming back to you with notes, I’m doing it because I’m aiming the same direction as you, to make this thing the best it can be. I like to go into it as egoless as possible—best idea wins. The best relationships I have are people that trust that type of feedback and trust me that I’ll back down when I realize that I’m wrong. If I can’t take a bullet for you, maybe I shouldn’t work with you.
Are there creators for whom you think you’re a bad editorial fit?
There are creators in this industry who I have enormous respect for who I don’t think I have any business editing. I don’t think I have anything to bring to them. And quite frankly, I may not have the right type of references, literary, pop culture-wise, to be able to really give them the type of feedback that they need on their work. I think it’s important to realize what your weaknesses are as well as your strengths.
You’ve brought a lot of indie creators like Matt Fraction and crime writers like Duane Swierczynski to the big leagues at Marvel. What are your concerns when you do that?
The main thing I can say is, you don’t want to give them a poisoned chalice. I really believe what you wanna do with a writer—with an artist as well—is take into account their body of work and what type of genre they’re most comfortable with and play to their strengths, not their weaknesses. You don’t wanna just give them the first job that comes across your desk, you don’t wanna solve your problem of the day with them. Chris Hastings, who writes The Adventures of Doctor McNinja...call me crazy, but his first job ain’t gonna be PunisherMAX, you follow me? Deadpool, yes. PunisherMAX, no.
As EIC, you can’t be as hands-on editing individual books as you used to be. Do you miss that?
The hardest part of becoming editor-in-chief was giving up my babies, my books. Giving up PunisherMAX, giving up Deadpool—that was difficult, because I really enjoyed doing that. I’ve been told that there are a couple people who’ll be deputized to keep me from sneak-editing on the side. That said, I don’t think my days of editing are behind me. Where there are new writers, especially, I think I’m going to have to roll up my sleeves and get involved to help them transition, if nothing else, to the way we do things.
Universe-wide event stories like Civil War and Fear Itself (right) tackled zeitgeist issues like the sacrifice of civil liberties and fear mongering. Are there any other societal issues you want to address?
We’re aware of things like the recent spate of teen suicides. And there have been a number of stories pitched to comment on it. We haven’t published most of the stories because we didn’t think that they were appropriate; they didn’t handle the subject matter in a manner that we thought was the Marvel statement, and that will be coming. But again, being topical for the sake of being topical, that’s bullshit. Be topical because you have something to say, or—even better—because you feel that you may have something new to say. Again, the solution to a problem like [teen suicide] can’t be found in a superhero beating up a bully. The message is something fundamentally different than that.
Marvel’s first collaboration with another Disney company since being acquired by the Mouse was an NBA preview pairing NBA icons and superheroes together for ESPN The Magazine. What else might the Disney relationship produce?
I hope that we just continue dialogue with sister companies the way we have. We have our own catalogue of amazing characters, then you’ve got Disney with theirs, then we’ve got Pixar out there. I was surprised that our first endeavor was with ESPN, but it was a perfect marriage. NBA icons and superheroes, it just fit hand-in-hand. Honestly, I don’t know right now what’s going to happen. Maybe one day there will be a Deadpool Vs. Goofy: This Time It’s Personal. Who knows! I’d love to see it.
Having such a close relationship to the PunisherMAX series, what is your opinion of the three Punisher movies?
I didn’t like any of them.
Thank god! As a huge Punisher fan, I had to ask.
If you're not capturing the vibe of what Garth Ennis did in PunisherMAX, or even what Jason Aaron is doing right now in PunisherMAX—which I think is a fucking masterpiece, by the way—you’re making a mistake. Frank Castle is not a hero. Frank Castle is a damaged individual, a man who’s being pushed past the brink. I think if you made a movie about a damaged individual living in a world where he might be your best hope, you might be on the right track. As I tell any Punisher writer, Frank Castle’s heart is not a heart, it is a muscle that pumps blood into his body. That is it. His mission is very simple: take out as many bad guys as I can before I inevitably die. He’s not about saving people. Saving people is a byproduct of what he does. He is about punishing people. It is as simple as that. He fuels his body for the war, that is it. I saw this amazing British film called Dead Man’s Shoes, which captures the spirit of the Punisher. Hell, I’d even say that Tony Scott’s Man on Fire with Denzel Washington is more in line.
I heard that there might be a fourth Punisher film. The sad thing is I know I'll cross my fingers yet again and go see it.
It’s tricky. How do you sell people on sticking to the life of a psychotic, or a sociopath? Maybe that’s unfair, Frank’s not a sociopath, he does have a moral core. Frank would never put his own well-being above that of a civilian. So there is a code there, but that’s hard to translate to the screen. He’s not lovable and I think we like our heroes to be lovable. I would work for free on a cinematic or cable TV version of PunisherMAX. I have a much harder time wrapping my mind around a Marvel Punisher, a guy that would team up with Captain America. He’s a bit of a square peg in a round hole—he kills people! They gotta take him down. It’s as simple as that.
With regards to the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, given that it’s become somewhat of a public menace, do you think if Spider-Man existed he would be bent on taking this down?
Spider-Man’s too good-natured to really do anything about it but I think he would be disappointed. He’d probably offer a hand to the production company. It’s funny to me because I’m often asked if I've seen it. No one hates musical theater more than me; it's my natural enemy. I had two opportunities to go see the Spider-Man musical, and—no disrespect to anybody involved in the production—you pay me $500 to go, I’ll go, but I just can’t sit in the theater and watch people break out into song. Maybe I would take that bullet for my son if he really wanted to see it, but I’d have to have a couple of glasses of red wine before.
The death of Johnny Storm/Human Torch (right) was very successful. What is Marvel’s policy of death in comics and what do you do to ensure they're organic and not mere publicity stunts?
Our fans are smart enough to know this character is going to come back, the question is of when. They’re trained to know that this door can open and close. What people are buying into is the moment, the drama and the theater, the feelings it inspires in them. If that Fantastic Four issue had come out and that moment had read false, people would have killed the story, we would have heard nothing but hatred. People were primed not to like it, but I think that the authenticity of that moment, and the beat that the creator hit in that story, how they made the reader feel, was the important thing. Will Johnny Storm be back? Probably, at some point. Who knows when. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the Fantastic Four proves to be more popular without him for a while. Maybe he comes back, maybe another one comes back—that’s the beauty of comics. In that sense, there’s no such thing as a policy. It's more that we’re gonna roll the dice and see how people respond. But really, the bottom line is that no one here ever anticipated the way that was gonna go. Killing Johnny Storm? I mean, come on. We thought maybe ten thousand more copies if we were lucky. That took everyone by surprise, and I think that’s a testament to how well the creators, the writers, and artists pulled off that moment. I was moved by it. I thought that they staged it beautifully, it resonated.