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Marvel Executives Joe Quesada, Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort on Marvel NOW! [Interview]

First announced earlier this week, Marvel NOW! is a new and ambitious publishing initiative whereby Marvel Comics will launch (or in several cases, relaunch) new ongoing series nearly every week between October 2012 and February 2013. While not a reboot of its long-running narratives and mythologies, Marvel NOW! will see several series such as Iron Man and Captain America and Thor launch or relaunch with #1 issues as well as a new approach to publication design and digital content. Naturally, Marvel NOW! brings with it cosmetic changes for Marvel’s most popular characters and a disruption of the status quo for many series, perhaps most dramatically in the form of reassigning its most popular writers and artists to different Marvel franchises for the first time in many years.

Marvel NOW! has a stated mission to lure new and lapsed comic book readers to the company, whose visibility in the popular culture has been massively intensified with the pronounced success of The Avengers film. To learn more about the narrative challenges and marketing strategies associated with that goal — as well as to discuss topics like original graphic novels, event storylines, double-shipping, aesthetic values, and how they all relate to Marvel NOW! — ComicsAlliance spoke with Marvel Comics’ top decision makers: Chief Creative officer of Marvel Entertainment Joe Quesada; Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso; and Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort.Although it goes into effect just 13 months after Marvel’s closest rival, DC Comics, executed a similarly ambitious, line-wide overhaul in The New 52, Marvel NOW! is very different in several crucial ways. DC’s project was completed within a single month, while Marvel NOW! will roll out at a more leisurely pace, with a new or relaunched book debuting almost every week over the course of five months. The New 52 relaunched the entire DC superhero line, whereas Marvel NOW! will not affect every Marvel superhero book currently being published — in fact, we now know that certain recently launched titles like Daredevil and Captain Marvel will proceed unchanged. Finally, DC’s New 52 included an almost total reboot of its characters and their mythologies, while Marvel’s plan will not reset the long-running Marvel Universe continuity. Indeed, all the narrative changes are precipitated by the conclusion of Avengers Vs. X-Men.

New series confirmed at this stage include the Marvel NOW! flagship title, Uncanny Avengers by Rick Remender and John Cassaday, which joins members of the once disparate X-Men and Avengers teams; All-New X-Men by Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen, which brings the original five X-Men — first introduced in the 1960s — into the present day via time travel; and Avengers — now shipping twice a month — by Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña, which will focus on more cosmic concerns and expand the team’s membership to include characters from across the Marvel Universe as part of an effort to reunify characters and titles that had previously been seen as unconnected. Namely, the X-Men and the “cosmic” characters such as Nova and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

The elevation of Fear Agent co-creator Remender to Marvel’s A-list is in keeping with the publisher’s tradition, in effect since 2000, of recruiting acclaimed, idiosyncratic writers from the world of indie or otherwise non-cape comics (like Brian Bendis, Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman), and authorizing them to dictate the course of the Marvel line. That Hickman will be taking over the core Avengers titles (including New Avengers, to be drawn by Steve Epting) is a major change for readers of that franchise, as it had been helmed by Bendis for the better part of a decade (longer than any other writer in the publisher’s history) and more often than not was the focus of most of Marvel’s line-wide event storylines. Essentially, where go the Avengers so goes the Marvel Universe, and that the visionary author of The Nightly News and Pax Romana will presumably be setting the pace for the foreseeable future is not an insignificant development for Marvel fans.

Beyond the creative shakeups, Marvel NOW! also represents a reaffirmation of the company’s dedication to digital content and distribution. All print issues with Marvel NOW! branding will include codes for free digital copies, and #1 issues will come with Augmented Reality content, where an iPad or similar device will be able to access a multimedia “recap” or “trailer” — like a television series — designed to further assist new readers in familiarizing themselves with the universe they’re about to dive into. Specifics are forthcoming, but we know that digital distribution has also been a motivator for changing the company’s approach to cover artwork and design.

ComicsAlliance reader reaction to the initial announcement was predictably diverse, with some eagerly anticipating the creative team changes and others objecting to what they saw as a bombastic promotional scheme. While Marvel NOW! obviously comes with its share of publishing plans, promotional hooks and digital bells and whistles, the Marvel executives we spoke with emphasized on numerous occasions that their overriding strategy behind every dimension of this elaborate initiative is to service the stories and the characters, and not the other way around.

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ComicsAlliance: How long has Marvel NOW! been in the works, both in terms of your internal strategizing and in terms of the narratives of the books themselves? Was Avengers vs. X-Men devised specifically to build up to it, or did these initiatives develop independently?

Joe Quesada: It’s been in the works for a while. We didn’t necessarily have the name immediately, but it was meant to follow Avengers Vs. X-Men. [What you'll see in Marvel NOW!] was the natural story point for where our characters were headed.

CA: What market factors led up to the Marvel NOW! initiative? In the case of DC’s line-wide overhaul, the company made it plain that dramatic steps were necessary to revitalize sales and interest, beyond the aesthetic concerns. What precipitated Marvel NOW! for you?

JQ: What really precipitated it for us was, again, where our characters were going, where the story was heading — turning a new page on the Marvel Universe and keeping things fresh. It was really no more than that; a new generation of heroes and a new generation of the way that Marvel feels and the way that we push our stories and how we push our covers and how we deliver these stories with the increased [connection between] the digital world and our publishing world.

CA: What can you tell us about what will be different about the core franchises come October: Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Cosmic and the unincorporated Daredevil-type territories? We know that there’s a new relationship between the X-Men and the Avengers insofar as they populate Uncanny Avengers, and it seems there’s a time travel element to the X-Men books?

Tom Brevoort: There’s not all that much I can tell you without giving stuff away about the conclusion to Avengers Vs. X-Men. But we’re not talking about sweeping wholesale changes here — Captain America will still be Captain America, Thor will still be Thor, the Hulk will still be the Hulk. But one thing I can certainly speak to is the fact that part of what we’re doing here is re-unifying the Marvel Universe. For the past decade or two, for example, the X-Men line has felt separate from the rest of the MU — the stories would theoretically take place within the same place, but the X-Men would kind of be clustered together away from everything else. The same kind of thing can be said about the space characters. We’re going to be doing away with that approach. At this point, they’ll all be Marvel characters, and should be able to interact and intersect with the casual ease that they used to back in the day.

CA: Marvel NOW! is characterized by new titles, new creative teams, new directions, new cover designs, all geared towards new readers. However, established creators remain a major part of the line; and the characters and histories aren’t being rebooted from scratch like with DC’s New 52. So on a more specific level, what can you tell us about the Marvel NOW line or the Marvel Universe that is going to be very distinctly different than what’s come before?

TB: Marvel NOW! is a coordinated creative refresh across our entire publishing line, a unique moment in which the creative reins on virtually all of our quintessential series are being passed from one person to another. As a result, there’ll be both the excitement and uncertainty of seeing a new creative partnership handle characters and series that have been in other hands consistently for many years. And at the same time, this is the perfect instance for readers both new and lapsed to dip their toes back into the Marvel pool, in that all of these creators are going to be beginning their story-cycles during this time, so it’s about a clean a point of entry as there’s ever likely to be. Outside of that, the real difference is that Brian Bendis will be writing X-Men, something he’s never done before, and Jonathan Hickman will be writing Avengers, something he’s never done before — and so on.

JQ: You really need to look no look no further than three titles in particular, which are going to be Jonathan Hickman’s two Avengers titles and Brian Bendis’ All-New X-Men title. These are books that are going bring significant change to the Marvel Universe. Without giving away huge story elements for these guys, the change is coming and it’s coming in a big way but it’s coming from story. Without divulging too much, I can assure you that the changes will be significant.

But at the end of the day, this is also no different than things that Marvel has done in the past. We have not rebooted our universe or our history. What we’ve done is refresh things and change status quos and take our characters to different places or sometimes changed characters wholly as the story dictates. To me it’s a very organic approach that we take, it’s part of our history of refreshing our universe from time to time. And you have to do that because while the reader may say they desire stability, at the end of the day you cannot remain stagnant and be able to tell compelling stories. There has to be some growth, there has to be some change.

Axel Alonso: This is the perfect point in the ongoing story of the Marvel Universe for us to do Marvel NOW! Avengers vs. X-Men is the perfect epilogue to the interconnected stories we’ve been telling from House of M to X-Sanction, and an incredible launching pad for something that we’ve — that I’ve, personally — wanted to do for a while.

Marvel NOW! hearkens back to 11 years ago, when we put a lot of stock in a simple formula: great artist plus great writer plus great character plus great story equals success. As you point out, this ain’t a reboot. The Marvel Universe doesn’t travel back in time, into the future, or to an alternate universe. This is just the next chapter, brought about by the events in AVX, events that will compel the Avengers and the X-Men to re-think themselves as organizations — who they are, what they stand for, how they operate.

CA: From House of M to Civil War to World War Hulk to Secret Invasion to Dark Reign to Siege to Fear Itself and to Avengers Vs. X-Men, Marvel has been characterized for many years by line-wide “event” stories that frequently necessitate reading multiple titles to follow a story that can sometimes lead right into another. Narratively, I think Marvel has been remarkably successful with these initiatives, as they effectively move the whole line from one state of affairs to the next relatively elegantly, although it can be expensive to keep up. The question I see our readers asking all the time is how long Marvel will keep this up and, if so, why? What are your thoughts on this elaborate publishing strategy going into Marvel NOW!, where recruiting new readers is a priority?

TB: It’s pretty simple: we do it because it works. I’ve seen the same reader reaction to event storytelling that you have, and yet every time we roll out a big storyline of this type, it’s immediately catapulted to the top of the charts — whereas the year in which we deliberately refrained from doing a big event story, our sales were sluggish. It’s a very Democratic process — we’re going to do what the majority of the fans responds to. That said, that’s not what Marvel NOW! is about. Each of these titles is an island unto itself, so you can read All-New X-Men without reading Avengers if you so choose.

Taken another way, this is the promise of the superhero team comic taken to its logical conclusion: it’s all of your favorite characters together in one massive world-changing storyline featuring the greatest battle ever! And especially if you need to be more frugal with your comic book related purchases than in the past, these stories are the ones most likely to give the majority of our readers what they’re looking for.

CA: One of the very obviously different things that came with DC’s relaunch was a major aesthetic overhaul. Whatever you could have characterized as “DC house style” is definitely no longer in effect, and has been replaced by a very specific approach to artwork and narrative across the line. How will Marvel NOW! change the look and feel of Marvel’s line?

AA: While we are rethinking our approach to covers, challenging the old newsstand requirements of “logo goes on the top, indicia goes on the bottom,” we are not overhauling our line — our approach to artwork and narrative across the line isn’t broken. What we are doing is starting the next chapter of the ongoing saga of the Marvel Universe, and our talent pool is as pumped and excited as I’ve ever seen them. Each and every one of these new launch titles is built to last. While we are taking some chances, we’re not just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks to it, hoping that the Marvel NOW! slug will be enough glue. Don’t expect creator shifts or cancellations around issue #4 or #5. Each title starts with the creative team.

In October through February, we’ll provide readers — old, lapsed or new — with at least one reason to go into a comic store: a new issue #1 that is an entry-point into the Marvel Universe. We have faith in each and every one of these launches, which is why we’re taking a patient approach and letting the new Marvel Universe reveal itself over a period of months, not weeks.

TB: We’re doing a few things, but in general, honestly, we don’t really think there’s very much broken in this regard. So yes, we’re going to have artists working on strips and characters they haven’t touched before, but we’re also going to continue to have a wide spectrum of artistic styles in evidence in our books — everything from John Romita, Jr. to Chris Bachalo to Marcos Martin to Nick Bradshaw to Jerome Opeña to John Cassaday and everything in-between. If there’s a Marvel house style, then it’s a pretty massive and eclectic house.

That all said, we are doing things such as re-evaluating the way we approach our covers. Especially as we carve out a greater footprint in the digital landscape, the methods and requirements of the old newsstand approach to covers may no longer be as relevant. So instead, we’re allowing our artists to mix things up graphically in a more aggressive manner, taking our cues from the great movie posters of the past, and hopefully creating an aesthetic that will be successful and relevant to modern audiences.

CA: We’ve noticed a new focus on Nova across Marvel’s media operations, most obviously with the inauguration of the Infinite Comics project and in the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series. There’s also talk of a Guardians of the Galaxy film, and we see him spotlighted in Joe’s promotional artwork for Marvel NOW! Can fans expect to see Nova upgraded to a more A-list status? Is this an indication of a new synchronicity between the media operations and the comics publishing?

JQ: As we become a bigger company there are some characters that we look at and say, “You know, there might be some wonderful potential that we haven’t tapped into yet.” So yes, we definitely start to think of things in a more synergistic fashion. The conversation we have internally for Nova in publishing started probably two years ago. And then we started to develop the Ultimate Spider-Man animated show, and as we were looking for a cast of superheroes to supply with, Nova became a perfect candidate for that and a character that we wanted to look at. “We really need to start bringing this character into the mainstream because there are ideas that are floating around in publishing that we really think could make him a significant player — not just in the Marvel publishing universe, but beyond that.” It’s just a matter of elevating characters and trying to bring new ones to the forefront. Even characters that have been around for years that maybe didn’t get an A-list treatment. Yeah, Nova is definitely a character that we’re putting a lot of weight on. We have some big plans for him in the Marvel NOW! universe and as the story escalates and it will become more evident what it is that we’re doing.

CA: While a creator reshuffle can be exciting for readers, it would seem to necessarily alarm some as well. For example, there are a number of Marvel titles that people really love specifically because of the creators working on them. Uncanny X-Force, for example, or Daredevil, Punisher, Wolverine and the X-Men, and many others besides. It seems like there has to be some kind of creative cost-benefit calculation with respect to removing creators from fan-favorite books to put them elsewhere? What does that calculation look like from your perspective?

TB: We tried to approach things sensibly. While the catalyst for making this creative shift was the fact that a number of our key creators were coming to the natural end of their stewardship of particular titles, we didn’t want to make things so absolute that absolutely every series had to undergo a creative overhaul. Especially in the cases of titles such as Daredevil, which has both been a critical and commercial success and is relatively newly relaunched itself, we chose not to make a change and not to involve it in this initiative. That would have been a zero-net gain otherwise.

CA: Most of Marvel’s existing superstar talent will continue to work on titles in the Marvel NOW! era, but with so many new series launching between now and February, one would think you’d have to be bringing in some new voices not just to spice things up, but to do all that work. What can you tell us about who will be joining the Marvel ranks in Marvel NOW? On what basis did you seek out and hire those new Marvel creators, and what are you doing to find more down the road?

AA: There will be some new voices in the mix — we’re just not ready to talk about them yet. But Marvel NOW! starts with our star players and extends down our deep and talented bench — of writers and artists. Expect a few of them to break through.

CA: There’s a vocal number of readers and commentators who believe the aesthetic harmony of some Marvel books has been disrupted by the company’s practice of shipping certain titles multiple times a month. One of Marvel’s strongest titles — indeed, one of our picks for best book of 2011 — is Daredevil, which as of issue #12 will have seen no fewer than six pencillers, according to solicits. I wanted to know what you gentlemen think about this practice — the practical reasons behind it, how you think it impacts the reader’s connection to the material, and how that it plays into your plans for new readers with Marvel NOW?

AA: Multi-shipping is a challenge, but as Daredevil shows, it’s possible to create a top quality title that comes out more than once a month. Uncanny X-Force is another example of a title that proves this.

TB: In an ideal world, we’d have creators — artists in particular, but not exclusively — who could deliver the number of issues we require while still maintaining the quality of the work they’re doing. But especially today, when the expectations of that work are higher than ever, and when almost everything is preserved for posterity in collected editions, that’s not a very realistic expectation to have. So you try to cast your artists intelligently, so that they can all serve the central aesthetic of the series you’re crafting. You point to Daredevil’s many pencilers, yet say that it’s one of the best things we put out last year — there’s your answer. It would have been magnificent if Paolo Rivera or Marcos Martin or Chris Samnee could have drawn every issue of that book, but the limitations of time and human endurance make that impossible.

So each of our editors does their best to maintain a sense of visual continuity throughout each series, and to deploy their artists effectively. In the case of something like Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, which is going to ship twice a month in the manner of Amazing Spider-Man, we’ve got Jerome Opeña illustrating the lead-off issues. Then comes Adam Kubert, then Dustin Weaver, and then Mike Deodato. These guys are not in any way the same kinds of artists, but each one is a giant when it comes to talent and at the top of the field, and our expectation is that they’ll maintain the strength and the dominance of Avengers.

CA: Marvel experimented recently with original graphic novels in the form of the Season One line, which was created by a mixture of veteran professionals and newer talents and which was generally well received by readers and critics. How does Marvel look at that initiative now and will there be anything more along those lines, books targeted at the book trade, perhaps as part of the Marvel NOW initiative?

TB: Not specifically as part of the Marvel NOW! initiative, but we’ll continue to experiment with the OGN format — and we’re continuing to produce additional Season One editions as well.

CA: I want to know how you guys think about the new readers that you’re trying to reach. Who are they? And given that the comic book medium itself requires a certain degree of evangelism in today’s market, how does Marvel balance communicating with current comic book buyers and reaching out to those new ones?

JQ: It’s all a matter of consistency. We love our hardcore constituency. We’re not rebooting, we’re not saying, ‘Hey, all that stuff you read doesn’t matter anymore.” We’re building upon that [history], which is really no different [than how Marvel typically operates]. We’re always trying to get new readers. The readers we want are people who love incredible, unique storytelling with great characters. The Marvel NOW! initiative is something that’s designed to sort of put a flag in the sand and say, “This is a cool place to pick up on the new status quos but a continuation of the Marvel Universe where we still respect our continuity.” Our characters just grow. It’s an easier balance to strike than one might imagine. It’s just a matter of making sure that you’re appeasing both the new and both the old, and making sure that Marvel Universe remains consistent and whole.

CA: Marvel NOW!’s flagship book is Uncanny Avengers #1, and new #1 launches will follow. Will this result in current ongoing series being relaunched with new #1′s, even recently launched books like Captain Marvel? If so, what made renumbering the right marketing decision for Marvel right now as opposed to other marketing tactics and how will Marvel address frustration from fans who don’t care to see longtime series renumbered?

TB: As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t force everybody to go “all-in” with Marvel NOW!, so for series such as Captain Marvel, where there was no need to shake things up or to change anything about them, there’ll be no involvement, no renumbering and no relaunch-they’ll continue on just the way they are.

As for the rest, I’ve been involved in this argument a number of times over the years, dating back as far as the Heroes Return books. But the bottom line remains exactly the same: if you’re looking to reach the maximum number of people, and to communicate clearly that this is a beginning, a time and a place where they can dip a toe into the water and sample what we have to offer — then launching the new books beginning with #1 is absolutely mission-critical.

CA: When you undertake such a massive publishing initiative, something with a very specific marketing structure like a line-wide relaunch or reboot, do you run the risk of the event itself becoming the focus, rather than the work itself? How do compensate for that, creatively?

AA: Like I said, Marvel NOW! is all about individual titles. There is no substitute for talent or passion, and our writers and artists are overflowing right now. We just finished a three-day editorial summit where writers unveiled their plans for each title, and there wasn’t a weak link in the chain.

JQ: There are several things that come into play, not the least of which is how we release all these new titles and all these new stories. We’re not just dropping a bomb on the readership and saying, “Okay, this is the day where it all starts.” This is a bit more of a timed release, a story-structured release. And this isn’t in itself an event. It’s not a reboot, there isn’t a crisis or anything that happens that wipes the slate clean. It is just a continuation of the universe but with new and interesting stories within it. I don’t want to falsely tell readers, “Hey, listen, we’re doing a new origin for Spider-Man, a new origin for Iron Man.” That’s not what we’re doing. It is all story-driven.

TB: At the end of the day, content is king. Promotion can get you eyeballs, can get readers through the door — but it’s the work that keeps them there. The work is the most important part. But that said, you very often need to have a large, loud message in order to cut through the white noise and to get people to pay attention to you. But the message isn’t the content. At the end of the day, I feel very confident that Rick and John’s Uncanny Avengers, Brian and Stuart’s All-New X-Men and Jonathan and Jerome’s Avengers will all be comics of the highest quality and the greatest reading experience. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. But it’s always about getting great storytellers to tell great stories.

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