Axel Alonso gives lazy interview to Complex
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.I'm confused. If they'd really rediscovered success, surely they wouldn't have to be bought out by Disney? It doesn't make sense.
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?I wouldn't say he's dumb, but I will say he's pretty disrespectful of their former fans if he's going to keep Spider-Man the way it is with no marriage, an implausible resurrection of Harry Osborn, and weak writing to boot. And unfortunately, even Brevoort's been acting like a know-it-all for years now. And all the capable people they once had are long gone.
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?But they've long abandoned trying to keep them fresh and maintaining the backstories well. Otherwise, they wouldn't have allowed J. Michael Stracynski to make a mess out of Spider-Man. Plus, I think what he means by obscure stories are the real backstories. Obviously, in the minds of people like him, we're not supposed to care if they're sullied.
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.
Single comics can cost cash-strapped readers as much as $3.99 nowadays. How do you address this?Sorry, but we haven't gotten what we'll no longer pay for by the end of the day or night for at least a decade now. The writers they'll hire have either been hacks, or they've been the editors' deliberate favorites like Brian Bendis, who writes exactly what they believe is appropriate. The price is the result of years of fans exiting the customer line due to bad storytelling and they've had to raise it to cut their losses, even though it only helps precipitate the readership decline.
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.
What are some interests that inform you as an EIC?This isn't clear, but I wonder if he's saying he developed such a cynical attitude, he used it to take out his anger on Captain America, Rawhide Kid, and even X-Men, by supporting the embarrassingly bad steps they took with those books and characters? I wouldn't be surprised if that's the answer.
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.
Why do you think the comic industry has been so slow to reflect the diversity of its readers?Oh please. They've been reflecting the diversity of readers and the wider public for years now; it's no longer an issue. They've even had some Latino characters featured in their comics too, like Firebird/Bonita Juarez.
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.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure they have more female writers today than before: once they had writers and editors like Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, but today, save for writers like Marjorie Liu and Kathryn Immonen, there still very few women working at Marvel, and those who do are likely to be working under grave editorial mandates.
Alonso's reply also tells something very notable about what jobs minorities are getting, and it may not be writing, only artwork. George Perez is probably the most notable contributor of a Latino background who did work as a writer in comics when he scripted Wonder Woman from 1987-92. But other than that, there do not seem to be many people of a black or Latino background who've actually gotten the chance to write. Come to think of it, not many Europeans save for those from the UK have gotten that chance either. Hardly what one could call progress.
And if they're going to destroy continuity and drown their books in only so much poor storytelling, then nothing's really organic. Contrary to what Alonso's telling, it is forced.
You have a reputation for being great managing writers and artists. What is the key to that?What great reputation are they talking about? They've harmed Spider-Man, Captain America and the Avengers, and then they have the gall to claim there's a positive reputation out there? And Alonso has the gall to go along with that. The only good relations he has are with people who realize they can take advantage of him like Stracynski and Bendis, since they know he couldn't care less what bad moves they make with their universe.
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?And that's clarifying the earlier observation that he wouldn't get in Bendis' and Strancynski's way at all. On the other hand, if Chuck Dixon, for example, were still welcome to work for them, they'd likely make it impossible to have an impact.
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 only kind of work Fraction is comfortable with is something with political undertones, like Fear Itself contains. Stracynski and Mark Millar certainly were too when the latter did Civil War. Or, contrary to what Alonso claims, he's playing to Fraction's weaknesses, mainly because neither Fraction, Bendis or Stracynski have any real strengths.
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.
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?They don't think problems with teen suicides - something Japan has a disturbing number of - and drug abuse are worth publishing, but political biases are? I'm not impressed, and under people like him, I doubt they'd even be able to tackle suicide and drugs convincingly. More likely they'd just try to blame conservatives for all the bad things that happen in the world.
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.
The last part of the interview is about their snuffing out Johnny Storm, and says:
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?Again, they claim success without even looking at how low the numbers really were, and don't even ask why Johnny had to die at all, nor what makes this any better than a character driven story with Johnny Storm alive. And does anyone care a few months afterwards? Since they've canceled the earlier volume of the FF, clearly, not many do.
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.