Posts Tagged ‘ Marvel Entertainment ’

Captain Marvel: Axel Alonso At Marvel Helm

My Marvel tour culminated in a sit down with new Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso. I had met Axel several years ago as he guest lectured one of Danny Fingeroth’s Comics & Graphic Novel Storytelling classes at NYU. Axel was amazingly generous and gracious then and nothing has changed. He has had Vertigo and been a Marvel Knight, but now he’s got the keys to the kingdom. He’s a made guy. He’s a big kid whose sandbox happens to be Marvel’s vault. His toys are global brands. No time-outs.

Jason Versaggi:              So I guess from your perspective now, you’re editor-in-chief.  What does an EIC do?  What’s your daily responsibility look like?

Remember that one kid in the neighborhood who came over to play with the Darth Vader case filled with ALL the Star Wars figures?

 Axel Alonso:                  Well, the first thing is it means that I have to get myself off the monthly titles that I was working on directly.  So, it’s taking more of a macro role.  So, I’m not as involved perhaps in the minutiae of books so much as the big picture stuff.  So, the hardest part of becoming [EIC] is giving up my babies.  [So, you see] story arcs I had in progress that are now being edited by other people.  I’ll be reading script and giving notes but there’s only so much I can be involved in any of those stories now.  So, it’s much more about longer-term planning.  I just ran my first summit where I went in with a specific story that they wanted us to tell.  We’ve been talking about it for a while.  We’ve been entertaining for a while and I wanted to explain why I felt that we got – this is the great time to tell it and what are possible inciting incident to kick things off.  So again part of it is learning what it means to sort of lead the editorial group in a macro one.

 Jason Versaggi:              I know that you’re just getting into the role here but from what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced so far, how do you think the role now in 2011 is different than anybody else who’s previously had the spot?

 Axel Alonso:                  Well, the big difference is that Marvel is now owned by Disney which means that it’s much more similar to what it’s like when I worked with Vertigo which is a subsidiary of DC Comics and Time Warner.  We have a parent company and so I’m aware of that parent company and my responsibility to that parent company.  I’m also aware of our relationship with the studio.  It’s a very different situation because even when Joe [Quesada] came in, Marvel was a Mom-and-Pop Shop, I came a week after him not knowing it would be around a year later.  People forget how vulnerable the company was at that time.  I assembled a great crew of people who obviously really knew what they were doing both on the West Coast and the East Coast and things turned out fine.

 Jason Versaggi:              You’re one of the custodians of these global brands now and these properties and how much are you involved with the film aspect which is like tied into so many other platforms.  Everything is multimedia now like what is your relationship with those guys?

 Axel Alonso:                  Yes.  I mean our relationship is one where we’re consulted, but it’s not as if we’re irrelevant to the West Coast operations but [let me rewind].  I’m becoming more and more aware what they’re doing with my new job.  Kevin and his crew have a master plan which involves a creation of a universe on a cinematic level that is respectful of the old fans and clearly in order to be successful needs to reach the new fans, fans like my son who can’t wait to see Thor or Captain America.  The long and short of it is that I’m aware of what’s going on there.  I’ve read scripts.  I’ve seen footage.  I’m mindful of that, of what they’re doing.  In some occasions, they have a little bit of ripple effect of what we do where the aesthetics of the movie that you might see reflected in our comics with the synergy but the long and short of it is that I think we complement each other, but we don’t have a profound effect on what Kevin’s doing.  They’ve consulted myself, Joe, Tom [Brevoort] – they’ve flown us out to LA to meet with [Bob Rowe] and discuss story but mostly it’s a think tank.  We’re not editing scripts.  I think Joe as COO probably has more input now than he ever has before but that’s a question better asked of him.

 Jason Versaggi:              I know that you come from a journalistic background and you probably can edit scripts in your sleep.  How do you work with an artist? How do you edit an artist when you see someone turning in pages, what’s your process regarding say, “You know what?  This is right.  I want to see this here.”  How do you…?

 Axel Alonso:                  Well, it’s pretty simple.  When you’re working with a rough artist or a raw artist, you make thumbnails the first part of the process.  With thumbnails, what they’ll do is they’ll [render] very loose – and I can show you some examples, how they see the page, how they would layout the page, and now, what you do is you check those thumbnails and review.  Usually, I do a primary course with them.  I explain to them the importance of varying camera angles, the importance of an establishing shot with really setting up a scene, the importance of close ups for characters really so that you feel them and you feel them as actual characters in the story.  So, I walk them through a primer and think that they should be thinking and I usually suggest that they work in a simple [grid] format simply because at that stage of the game when you’re breaking in, it’s usually good if you’re standing on terra firma.  You’re not trying to change the way that people look a comic layout when people don’t even know you yet.  So, I normally ask that they work within specific maybe tighter parameters, and I’ll just edit the hell out of them from an art director’s perspective.  Once thumbnails come in, I’ll critic them.  I’ll explain to them why a shot’s not working, why a shot’s redundant, how maybe they keep their camera static, and the good ones, they learn over time.  They assimilate all these information and they come out the other side as fully formed from the artist within a couple of project.

Support your local comic artist. Nice to have friends like Skottie Young to render the digital you. Here's Axel on Comic Book Resources.

 Jason Versaggi:              In your opinion, who are some of the artists who have blown you away with how well they can tell a story without use of words?

 Axel Alonso:                  Yes.  I mean who first comes to mind is Steve Dillon because Steve Dillon, you can look at a few Dillon comic book and fully understand the para-relationships, the emotion…

 Jason Versaggi:              They could express that.

 Axel Alonso:                  …everything.

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.

 Axel Alonso:                  Just based on our direction.  Again, it’s easy to say that about Steve because he never tries to be dynamic per se.  He understands the importance of a dramatic moment but his career isn’t built on [two-page slashes] he still values his art.  I can say that most if not all of the tough guys are amazing.  John Romita, Jr. might be the best in the business.  I can’t think of an artist who I put more confidence in going to a project not knowing anything about it.  It doesn’t matter what that project is.  It doesn’t matter.  It will be better if he draws it plain and simple.  There’s any number of other people – Bryan Hitch, the level of detail he brings, I don’t think there’s a more cinematic artist out there.  Steve McNiven, amazing draftsman and amazing storyteller, never a boring page.  Mike Deodato – I could just keep going down the list.  These guys just really know what they’re doing.

 Jason Versaggi:              Well, going back to guy like Romita Jr.  If he’s on a book, if he’s drawing a book, as an editor, how much input will you take from him if he wants to give you like, “Hey!  I think I want to contribute on the writing side.”  What’s the give and take?  What’s the…?

John Romita Jr. Kicks Ass.

 

Axel Alonso:                  Well, it’s kind of two questions.  I mean when John gets a script, John draws a script and calls up his editor and explains why he’s taking latitude with something.  John on occasion might be pacing.  He might carry a couple of panels to the next page.  When he does he usually communicates about that first, and he’s never wrong.  Also for someone who’s forgotten more about comic book stories that what most of us will learn, he’s also extremely gracious when on the rare occasion you call him and say, “Did you think a panel is not quite working?”  They misread the point.  Maybe the writer wasn’t clear enough but again, you always look at him as being part of the stories on process.  In fact, you do with everyone.  Every time you get into a project with a writer and an artist, the writer is turning over their story, their baby, to an artist who’s going to make it sink or swim that’s why good artists are so coveted because they’re at least 50% of the story. 

 Jason Versaggi:              So, the artists have to have the ability to be an editor before they even start drawing.

 Axel Alonso:                  It helps, yes. I mean certainly they need to have the art director’s instinct in order to be able to do this and generally speaking an artist will hopefully have a better art director’s instinct but the editor once they’ve had a career long as that.  The long and short of it is that you’re always better when an artist is smart.  There are artists who are amazing draftsmen, but they’re not good story tellers.  They miss the point of the page.  They’ll invariably put an importance on the wrong panel or they’ll misunderstand the importance of an artifact in the scene.  Two guys fighting in a room and there’s a knife on the ledge, if one of them grabs it and stabs the other, and the artist won’t see the importance of seeding that ledge even if it’s in the script, [seeing] that ledge and [seeing] that knife, and the existence of that knife.  They’ll bury it and most of the time, all they’ll do is shot it from above looking down.  You get the gist.

 Jason Versaggi:              They’ll take it out.

 Axel Alonso:                  Exactly, and I’m using a clumsy example there but again there are certainly a number of artists in the industry who are like that then there are artists who are so damn smart that they’ll call you saying, “This page doesn’t make sense.”  If they’re working with a new writer especially.  You’re not giving me a sense of what point A to point B is.  So, yes.  It definitely helps if an artist is smart and a good story teller.

 Jason Versaggi:              So what they did to save the comic industry – once a month collecting them into trades and getting them into book stores – the Barnes & Nobles of the world.  Now, we’ve got the iPad apps. Is that what’s really going to make everything all right again in the industry?

 Axel Alonso:                  I wouldn’t go say everything that’s going to – is going to make everything all right.  I’ll say that it’s an exciting, new horizon for our media.  Certainly I know that I no longer buy music.  I download music.  There might be the rare occasion when I want a CD because of some extra feature, but I can imagine the comic future in which I buy some comics at an affordable price than watching my iPad or download them onto my iPad so that my son can read on the plane when he’s not doing video games and watching a movie, but I also fully expect it in that world that there will be books I need to [shelf] and there will be comics where I need to read…

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.

 Axel Alonso:                  …but not all.  I’m only speaking for myself.  I’m excited by the prospect of a world in which I can get on a plane with issues one through one hundred of a certain comic book and just flip through them and read them in leisure and when I can easily turn them over to my kid who’s very much a digital kid.  By the same token, I love that hardback on my bookshelf.  Yes.  Again, I’ll always want my Absolute Ronin by Frank Miller on my shelf.  I’ll want my Preacher hard cover wherever the most chichi version of that is.  So, again that’s the way it goes.  I think it’s great, and I think the retailers – there’ll always be a place for those retailers. I know some people are worried.  If readers are anything like me, they’re going to still go to bookstores.

 Jason Versaggi:              Do you see or is there anything developing now where like you’re telling stories designed specifically for that platform?

 Axel Alonso:                  No.  We’re still telling comics for periodicals.  What we’re trying to do is we repurpose those and find a way.  So again it’s still a wide open terrain right now.

 Jason Versaggi:              Okay.

Axel Alonso:                  We’re too small an operation to be trying to do both at the same time.  We’re mindful of it but right now when we put together a comic book – it’s nice the way the comic book portions translate to the iPad.

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.

Axel Alonso:                  I think we’re exploring more in the world of motion comics, and it’s amazing some of the stuff we’ve done which haven’t been publicly seen yet.  It’ll change the way with motion comics.  I saw a motion comic book for a book I had edited previously.  I heard rumblings about it for a while.  When I saw it, my jaw dropped.  It was like watching a movie. 

 Jason Versaggi:              It’s weird. I used to [give them a try too] for the first time, going into them very reluctantly and then coming away saying, “Wow!”

 Axel Alonso:                  Well, let me tell you I’ve never seen anything like the trailer I saw and again, that’s not partisanship at all.  That’s just pure fact.  What I saw changed the way – in fact, I’m not even sure I would call it a motion comic even though it is.

And that concludes my day at Marvel. Special thanks to Jeff Suter and Axel Alonso. The offices are not the same as when Stan ran his bullpen but the spirit still permeates the fixtures and the furniture. You really feel like the folks here are all in. They care about the characters they guide and the stories they tell. It was established a long time ago when I was a kid but that is why today, I still Make Mine Marvel.

Surf on Panelers,

JV

Jeff Suter, Comics Rock Star: Marvel Tour Part I

 There is an old saying about getting to see the Wizard behind the curtain and for those that do, that often ruins the whole mystery about the actual Wizard of Oz. Well sometimes that is a bad thing and other times that can be a wonderfully enlightening experience. Such was the case when Panel Surfing got to go on an expedition to Marvel Entertainment’s new offices and sit down with Senior Art Director Jeff Suter. It was wonderfully enlightening…

Jason Versaggi:              Okay, so basically, I want to find out exactly what an art director at Marvel does and what it is that you do in your day to day.  How’d it differ from when John Romita [was director]?

Jazzy Johnny at work

 Jeff Suter:                     Right.  John was my boss at one point.  Let me see.  It has changed over the years.  I got here in ’97 and the art directors in the productions of comics were, like you said, a guy like John Romita, Jr. who were overseeing a creative talent in the execution of the art, they’re overseeing how panels were set up.  They didn’t really have their hands much on the marketing, the branding.  When I came in, the art department – mainly the advertising department at the time had eight or nine art directors.  They’re all designing things from ads, posters, branding, licensing, stuff that’s basically taking everything that we could get out of the [bullpen].  Basically cover art – taking cover art and then applying it across the board from toys to whatever. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Chef Boyardee. 

Authentic Italian Cuisine. Snikt.

 Jeff Suter:                     Exactly.  So it was kind of a pigeon hole to the art that was being created by the comics.  Later on, what happened is we took a department of eight people and we brought it down to one.  That was me.  So I got to oversee.  I kind of took over everything that all those people were doing and maybe using or executing things in different directions, or going their own way, or – and kind of with it being one person and unify it from the production of the catalogue previews, which is our monthly catalogue, which solicits our published product – comic books.  Then to take that and then apply that to going more in the mainstream direction.  We had Wizard Magazine that we would advertise in and we had ads in comic books, minimally advertising other comic books, but what we did, we expanded that.  We said, “Whatever ads we don’t fill, we’re not just going to throw in editorial content; we’re going to tell the readers, ‘Hey, you read the X-Men?  Look what’s going on in Cap.'”  So with one person working on all those projects, what we did is we created a singular idea of the brand Marvel.  It’s a very bad time, this company was in a bad shape, and again, I was kind of part of the cleanup crew, if you will.  So the role of an art director changed over that time as a person who was just involved in the production of the comic books to someone who was involved in all aspects of the brand Marvel. 

 Jason Versaggi:              And now with multimedia?

 Jeff Suter:                     It’s a long answer, but there’s a lot involved.  My department works on everything from ads, retail posters, convention, design and execution of the booth – all material that you find in these conventions, expansion into – working with licensees.  It goes on, and on, and on.  Now, online, [to new] comics.  You can go on, and on, and on.  This is like we took the brand and applied it to every facet that we could and still are.  So the role changed with design and the brand being the bigger picture. 

 Jason Versaggi:              I guess because – I mean as technology has changed, the need for more art has probably increased tenfold.  In the 60s, what they’d do to promote, they would take the image of the comic books, slap it in the inside and say…

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes, and every once in a while, Stan would yell, “Jack, I need a pinup.” 

 Jason Versaggi:              This is how we’re advertising art now.  You need artwork for everything.  I mean it’s the…

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes, but you had Jack Kirby sitting at the table and Stan would go, “Jack, I need four heads.  We’re going to do pins of whoever [signed in],” but it was all right there under one roof and it’s – but we have gotten back to that having – getting artwork other than just covers and stuff like that.  So that’s one stuff that we get to work on and we do have that done, and of course, we have generic artwork that we produce for licensees and what not, but we don’t really use that for the publishing end because we want to be very specific to the creative team and stuff like that, but it’s hard if a guy’s working on a 32-page book or a 22-page of content and say, “Hey, can you throw a teaser image together?”

The King in his kingdom

 Jason Versaggi:              Imagine.

 Jeff Suter:                     You have to try to use that artwork in a lot of different ways, but it’s great with the internet.  I mean you have an online teaser, then we make that into a house ad, and then we make it into a mini poster, and then it’s a banner at a convention, then it’s a T-shirt.

 Jason Versaggi:              It has a long shelf life and I imagine that…

 Jeff Suter:                     As long as the creative team has a long shelf life.

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes, that’s where it starts; that’s why they get paid the big bucks, but I mean I guess fans don’t really realize that if I’m a fan of the book and I want that, I don’t [realize] just how much more – sometimes.  I mean I guess they do today, but so much more is behind that where it’s pushing that out to other platforms.

 Jeff Suter:                     Right.  I mean now you have the – I don’t really – they couldn’t really do like the movies.  They couldn’t really do them right until recently, until technology caught up to Stan Lee.  I mean honestly, you couldn’t pull up a Fantastic 4 – anyway, you couldn’t even pull up a 1962 version of Fantastic 4 until the last fifteen, twenty years.  You know what I’m saying?  So at that point, it was already 30 years old.  So yes, luckily, technology caught up with Stan and we have all these fantastic movies which help move books and – I guess you do have a certain built-in crowd.  I mean I don’t think there’s a single person that wasn’t a fan of Iron Man that didn’t go see the movie.  Why would they not?  I mean especially – thank God it was fantastic.  Thank God Marvel Studios are now – we have an active role in our motion pictures which gives us just that much more opportunity to reach out. 

 Jason Versaggi:              I guess it doesn’t hurt that now – I mean I guess if you were going to make a Fantastic 4 movie 25 years ago, twenty years ago, you had to rely just on that.  Now, you can make a movie like that and say, “I don’t have to make $200 million with the movie because I’ve got so many other avenues for this to be successful.”

 Jeff Suter:                     You’re absolutely right, though, but also, that we can put these characters under one roof now, finally.  The ball had to start rolling outside of that roof and that’s still going strong.  I mean…

 Jason Versaggi:              Batman, Amazing Spiderman, X-Men First Class. 

 Jeff Suter:                     Wolverine, whatever.  Even FF, I mean people would say that the FF movies were not successful; they were absolutely successful.

 Jason Versaggi:              I enjoyed it.

 Jeff Suter:                     They were absolutely profitable, but however, when we’re talking about the characters that are under the Marvel Studios roof, you’re going to get that Avengers movie that everyone has been waiting for for 40 years.  You’re going to get that now.  You couldn’t really do that.  You can’t have Sony and Fox over here and New Line.  You know what I’m saying?

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.

 Jeff Suter:                     You got to spread out.  So thankfully, that was part of the business plan.  It was early on part of the business plan back in early 2000. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Well, you could see the direction and you could see it all set up.  I mean so far, it looks like it’s brilliant and hopefully it continues to be that way. 

 Jeff Suter:                     They’re comic books.

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.  They’re supposed to be fun.

 Jeff Suter:                     You’re right.  It’s fun Shakespeare. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Absolutely.  Well, the way Stan wrote it back then, people thought it probably was Shakespeare.

Now and forever, "The Man"

 Jeff Suter:                     That’s what I’m saying.

 Jason Versaggi:              So with so much – back to technology.  If so much is being done digitally today from the way books used to be produced, what does an artist today have to know about old school disciplines that are always going to be applicable?

 Jeff Suter:                     That’s a good question and Joe Quesada is one of those traditional artists, pencil on paper on board, and is now – and I’m not saying exclusively, but for the most part, what Joe is still – when he’s able to do some art, he’s now doing on a wacom tab.  So he’s penciling digitally, which essentially at that point, you don’t really need an inker.  Now, you can go in and you can adjust the levels in Photoshop and now it doesn’t need to be inked.  So it’s not on paper, there’s no pencil involved, and you don’t need an inker, and then it’s colored digitally.  Richard Isanove, who does all of Joe’s stuff and it’s all amazing.  I mean he’s a digital painter.  With that said, it took many, many years for one technology to really build up to that point to where these are now.  I don’t think anybody can say of digital painting that it’s not art, that it’s not a work of art.  Okay, maybe you can’t pick it up and you can’t hold it, but it is fantastic and it’s really – honestly, you had to have a guy like Alex Ross who essentially is working with gouache on board and an airbrush to get what people call “hyper-realistic”.  Well, now, you can see the texture in the metal on Iron Man. 

"Jeff Suter report to Conference Room Iron Man for your Panel Surfing closeup."

 Jason Versaggi:              It looks like brush stroke.  It doesn’t look like it’s…

 Jeff Suter:                     No.  Because it’s caught up.  Once again, technology’s caught up with what’s going on and I mean it can only get better.  See, I’m saying it’s caught up, but maybe ten years from now, we’re going to be like, “Oh, God.”  “Read this article about Jeff Suter that”. You know what I’m saying?  I come from old school design, meaning that I started out stripping film for my dad who was a pressman, and we had a little two-color printing press on our basement, and that’s where I started.  I was sixteen years old, and I started stripping film and stuff like that.  So I come from the old school print, ink on paper.  I had this discussion today and now I’m working on a computer all day long, but it’s the same thing with these guys who – the pen and ink guys.  There had to be a crossover.  There will always be a place for a pencil on paper in my opinion. 

 Jason Versaggi:              What we have to do is look at – one of my favorite artists today is Mitch Breitweiser and see how his pen and ink stuff looks and then see when it’s painted. 

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes.  Mitch is a really good example of that, too, because he understands that and he embraces it.

 Jason Versaggi:              It really enhances his work. 

 Jeff Suter:                     Right.  Skottie Young would say the same thing and again, these are guys that come from traditional ink, paint on board, and canvass, and stuff like that.  I pretty much stand by that technology has caught up with the medium or the medium’s growth, technology, [either one or two].

 Jason Versaggi:              Does this mean that the inkers are going to become extinct?  The old school?

 Jeff Suter:                     Well, I’m not saying extinct, but ever literally since day one, this is what it came down to – that the first time that a book was not inked.  Now, I’m not counting painted stuff that got scanned in and you go right to press.  I’m talking about scanned pencils right to a colorist.  That process occurred for one reason and one reason only – the penciler got his work in late, and this had to go on press on time, and we had to skip a step.  It was experimental, it was the first time, and I’m not saying the first time worked as well as it should have or looked as good as it should have, but it was like, “Whoa, it’s different.”  It looks different.  It wasn’t traditional hard lines on everything; it’s softer, it looks stylistic; it looked like we meant it.  I want to say [with me]; I’m not saying it was even this company.  I’m saying as a collective, it happened out of necessity.  So was that the start of a particular media going away?  Maybe, but again, I’m convinced that there will always be pencil on paper and ink, in one form or another.

 Jason Versaggi:              Hopefully.  Just like John Lasseter says, they’re going to keep the traditional animation at Disney.  Disney keeps running stuff…

 Jeff Suter:                     That’s another thing and that’s one that – they look different.  I mean you have to admit.  The digital will never look like analog; it’s the same thing until technology catches up on it.

 Jason Versaggi:              There’s still that certain charm that people hear in the record player.  So hopefully, there’s room for all of them.

 Jeff Suter:                     I know people who still put on vinyl.

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.  Who are some of the artists in the industry whose work that either influence you or affect you, past and present?

 Jeff Suter:                     I don’t have a comic book background.  That was one thing that when I was brought in to Marvel, I was brought in for my expertise in – a few different ways is my technical expertise in digital output.  I ran a digital output company.  I was lucky enough to be involved in a company that when things went electronic, I was able to go from plate making and mixing chemicals to scanning, and output, and all that.  They did cross over because you still need to process film.  I had that background already, so it was the digital guys that knew the digital process and they didn’t know anything about film processing.  Well, I was just in the right place in the right time.  I was a hard worker and I was given the opportunity.  So I wasn’t necessarily of the comic industry; I was of the print industry.  So my influences were just good product – beautiful finely-produced magazines or any kind of print.  That fascinates me, this enlargement on this wall because I used to do enlargement, you know what I’m saying?  So to see how well it was done and applied to the wall or the framing on that print back there – because I ran a frame department for a certain amount of time.  It was being involved in all of these different parts of the industry of presentation, if you will.  It’s marketing and it expanded once I got into advertising and design and typography.  They’re all interconnected and the more you know about the whole, the better you’ll be at doing the individual parts.  So my position here is – I’m an asset because I know all the individual parts that make up the whole as opposed to just knowing this or just knowing that, just knowing.  So I guess I oversee that.  So my influences are basically good presentation marketing.  Typography, I’m a big huge fan of [type].  My wife was very influential in my dumbing down of typography, which made it smarter.  It’s very, very hard to do clean design in the comic industry, but it can be done. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Well, let’s say, the way they used to do in the 60’s where it was all over the…

 Jeff Suter:                     Well, that’s what I was saying.  It’s very…

 Jason Versaggi:              Take that and then put ten word balloons or…

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes, but it can be done. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.

 Jeff Suter:                     I’ve tried.  I think that’s what I’m trying to do.  Alright, if you want to say that the guys in the industry right now that really inspire me, it’s guys like Joe Quesada who had a design background and who became an illustrator.  You know what I’m saying?  He gets it.  He gets the whole picture, I mean becoming a writer, and an editor-in-chief, and overseeing the explosion of what happened with this industry and this company.  So it’s guys like John Romita, Sr. who again, worked 70 hours a week and oversaw everything up until the end, but it was just a different world then.  You know what I’m saying?  It’s different, but it’s the same and he needed to know every single part of the process.  So it’s guys like that.  It’s guys who have a grasp of the bigger picture. 

 Jason Versaggi:              How’d the podcast develop?

 Jeff Suter:                     Well, the podcast, it’s funny you say that, the podcast developed again of just something that I technically had knowledge of.  I’m a professional musician; that’s my side job. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Wait, that’s your alter ego and this is your secret identity.  That’s your…

 Jeff Suter:                     No, this is my Clark Kent. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.

 Jeff Suter:                     That’s my superman.  I got it.  By day, Peter Parker and Spiderman.  Brand X, sorry.  So how this approached was we used to do weekly or bi-monthly press conferences with the comic press.  The online comic press was still blossoming at the time.  There were a couple of websites that would cover our press conferences, but the rest of it was Wizard, CBR, the mom and pop [new shops] and stuff like that.  So our retailers would call in and we do basically sales press conference about a project or have somebody on the phone, have Brian Bendis on the phone.  So John Dokes who is a big sales guy now, but was my boss at the time, came to me and said – also a part-time musician, said, “How would you go about recording these press conferences so that we can post it online?”  “Well, okay, let me think about that.”  Thought about it, a couple of mikes and a laptop, and then preamp, we should be good to go.  I had a background in recording; this can’t be any harder than recording a guitar or drums.  We started doing that and I realized, “God, this is boring.”  It’s a press conference, so I said, “We have to come up with a format.  A radio makes sense to me, a radio format.”  Q&A, one on one.  We started with groups of creators which just simply did not work. You cannot have three writers talking about the same subject.  Sorry.  The format doesn’t work.  So through about one year of a learning curve, I came up with a singular – “You know what?  I’m going to host this, I’m going to have one or two guests and talk about one project.  Let’s get a schedule going.  What’s your big pushed coming up in a couple months?”  Luckily, I had other people that would do the scheduling, stuff like that, and I’m just very comfortable on stage and it’s even easier in front of a microphone for me.  I just try to be myself.  Again, there’s a little curve there, but I think they roll off the tongue now. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.  I mean you get to talk to some cool folks.  It sounds like it’s a fun…

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes.  Well, that’s the whole thing and it’s a break.  I mean it’s work, and then I do the mixing, and add in a few sound effects and some of these intro music, and outro music.  I mean it is what it is.  It’s a sales tool.

 Jason Versaggi:              Oh, yes, it works.

 Jeff Suter:                     So again, I can get behind that because it’s helping me market our product. 

 Jason Versaggi:              You’re just packaging the brand in a new way…

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes.  I mean you might as well do one.  I’m me on those podcasts; I don’t – I’m not putting on a show.  I really am goofy, and I laugh like an idiot, and I’m perfectly happy with the guys who are comfortable on the show to dig into me a little bit, and I think they usually expect me to dig into them a little bit, too.  Just try to be myself and try to get some of the questions that – it’s very hard to get an answer out of these guys because you don’t want to spoil.  I mean storytelling is – if you tell the story before the story comes out – so we just try to get people pumped up about stuff. 

 Jason Versaggi:              “Did you hear the podcast? Suter spoiled Fear Itself.” 

 Jeff Suter:                     That’s the thing, and the beauty of it is if just something come up, I can take it out because I am [crosstalk].  I’m responsible for it and I’m the guy who edits.  I don’t think I’ve ever [let] anything out.  I can be wrong, though.

 Jason Versaggi:              Do you do them all here?  Does anybody call in?

 Jeff Suter:                     Well, we do call-ins most of the time, but it’s nice when there’s like a convention going on or they’re doing a creative retreat or something, try to get somebody one on one.  I mean it’s just nicer, face to face. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Well, any big projects you’ve got on the horizon that you’re just psyched about?

 Jeff Suter:                     Well, Fear Itself, which is our big – I don’t want to say crossover, but it’s 2011’s first big event and that involves lots of gods, and hammers.   There’s a Spiderman storyline coming up where the entire island of Manhattan gets spider powers, so I’m looking forward to it, [which is very throwback].  I mean it’s very throwback. Stan would do it.  How about everybody on Manhattan gets…?

 Jason Versaggi:              Why not?  That sounds cool.

 Jeff Suter:                     So that’s because – and there’s some very, very good X-Men stuff coming up that I can’t get into detail about, some Fantastic turnovers, Fantastic bad guys, and some old players coming back.  The X-Men stuff is really, really, really good and I’m looking forward to that.  Looking forward to do some video trailers on that, too.  I do a lot of the comic book trailers.

 Jason Versaggi:              Those are pretty awesome, too. 

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes, those are fun for me because I get to compose the music.

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes, another great tool. 

 Jeff Suter:                     You know what I’m saying?  Or do the narration, or record someone doing the narration, or fun sound effects.  I could do a little video editing and sometimes I get some of the other guys to do some of the video stuff, and then I can just concentrate on the music, but for the most part, I do most of those.  Again, it’s just another thing.  It’s like trying to apply what I enjoy doing to my – like composing music for doing our videos and stuff, as a musician, I’m doing this on my day job. 

 Jason Versaggi:              Yes.  You wouldn’t think it works, and then you hear the motion comic, and then when you get it, you’re like, “Wow.  It really works.”

 Jeff Suter:                     [Ironically], yes.  I’m not saying they’re all perfect, but…

 Jason Versaggi:              No, but I remember the ’60s, 1966 Marvel shows where they just would take a panel and they’d put in…

 Jeff Suter:                     Yes.  I remember the albums where it was just Stan narrating and then they recorded it to albums and…

 Jason Versaggi:              So that’s the progression of it and it works. 

 Jeff Suter:                     [Proved] fantastic, yes.

 Jason Versaggi:              Where can people see you perform your music?

 Jeff Suter:                     Oh, my band – well, you can check out my website which is hardcoverrocks.net.  I play mostly in northern New Jersey, in Burton County area, and Paramus, New Jersey, a place called “The Orange Lantern,” play at a place in the lower, lower, lower, New York state, Sloatsburg, New York specifically, which is the Rhodes North Tavern which is a fun venue.  I’m pretty much booked through December at this point.  I took this winter off.  Thank goodness I took this winter off with the way the winter was.  So yes, you can check out the website and you can check out me on Twitter, I’m Jeff Suter at Twitter, and generally, I’ll tweet or let people know when – “Hey, check out my website, today it’s updated,” but that’s my side job and let’s rock and roll.

 Jason Versaggi:              That is rock and roll.

I really appreciated Jeff taking the time to sit down and chat and also for the walking tour of Marvel’s new offices. I dare anyone to fall asleep in a meeting held in either Conference Room Thor or Conference Room Hulk. The Marvel tour continues next with the sequel to this chat: My conversation with Marvel’s new Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso in the next Panel Surfing.

Panel Surfers Assemble!

JV

The Man Who Loved Marvel: Pierre Comtois Charts An Empire

Today Panel Surfing gets to chat with the author of one of my favorite books on the history of Marvel Comics. Pierre Comtois wrote an endearing study of the early years of the Marvel Age in Marvel Comics In The 1960’s and discusses that book along with news of the sequel.

Jason Versaggi: Where did your passion for the source material of your book come from?

Pierre Comtois: Believe it or not, that’s a more difficult question to answer than you might think. The easy answer is that I grew up on them when I was a kid in the mid to late 1960s. An older boy in the neighborhood introduced me to Marvel comics around 1964…the first comic I ever bought was Spider-man #14…and I was hooked. After that began long years of trying to scrape enough money together to buy the 6 or 7 Marvels I wanted every month. At first it was the characters and the stories that grabbed me but as I became more discerning, I began to differentiate among the artists and soon, I could tell them apart and had my favorites. In high school, my tastes began to shift away from Marvel’s flagship titles to the more eclectic stuff led by Conan the Barbarian. As the years passed, my enthusiasm for the medium never diminished so that to this day I find that I enjoy rereading the comics in my collection as much as I ever did. However, my interest in the latest comics has slowed down since the 1980s and I find little these days that appeals to me the way comics did from the 1960s to the 1980s. My enthusiasm was such that I was still in high school when I first decided that I wanted to write a book about Marvel Comics. I’d written a paper for a psychology class about how comics weren’t just for kids anymore and that, I think, proved to be the catalyst. When I got the paper back from the teacher, every bit of white space on the title page was covered in his red ink scribblings gushing about my paper and promising a high grade for it! I got a vague idea then about maybe expanding the theme of that paper into a whole book. Not that things turned out that way, only that it was a catalyst.

JV: When were you first exposed to comics and more specifically Marvel?

Pierre: Although this neighborhood kid introduced me to Marvel, I recall that he had a stack of comics that included as many DCs as Marvels. Forget now if he recommended the Marvels over the DCs or if that was my own taste/choice…he probably did. Later, I had a cousin who loved comics too but was less discerning in his tastes. He bought everything from Thor to Sad Sack and I was able to catch up on titles like the Metal Men and Sgt Rock by borrowing stuff from him to read. One thing I did learn through that reading though was that DC didn’t do it for me!

JV: Were comics a big part of your youth and did they influence or foster a love of reading?

Pierre: When I was a kid, a lot of my time revolved around comics in one way or another. Specifically, I had to find ways to earn the money I needed to buy my favorite comics. I started by collecting returnable bottles and later walking a paper route to earn money I needed. At first I had a friend who was just as interested as I was but he soon got out of comics so I was left alone to scour my hometown on my trusty bike going from store to store looking for all the issues that I knew came out in a certain week. Although I’d developed an interest in reading before comics (I devoured the Tom Swift and Tarzan series, read a lot of books on WWII and my former comics reading buddy and I still shared an interest in science fiction) what they did was introduce me to new literary avenues to pursue such as Robert E. Howard from the Conan comic, Bram Stoker from Tomb of Dracula, or Sax Rohmer from Master of Kung Fu. 

JV: I often say Stan Lee is the 1b to Walt Disney’s 1a for who had the greatest contribution to American Pop Culture. What similarities do you see between the two imagineers? What made Stan such a visionary in the medium and how did he create such non-story related significance with the fans?

Pierre: Stan and Disney make for an interesting comparison in that both created entertainment empires based on creations from their own imaginations. But I’m not sure if the comparison can go too far. Disney seemed driven by his desire to create and use the medium of film to give his creations as wide a venue as possible. Stan on the other hand, hasn’t struck me as being terribly interested in writing comics before the Marvel age. I think it was just a job to him before that. His real interest lay in more acceptable media such as book publication…this feeling of media inferiority seemed to stay with him even into later life when he absconded to Hollywood as soon as he could get away. In between of course, he helped to create the Marvel universe as we know it. Obviously he had the talent for it and his skill as an editor and art editor was an indispensable part of that success. However, a key factor in his success was a chumminess with readers and the ability of not taking what Marvel was doing too seriously, attitudes that he likely picked up from EC Comics. Stan emulated that making fans feel like they were part of a special club whose members were in the know.

JV: If Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were the innovators of the Marvel   Universe who were the most important artists doing the yeoman’s work? Who was next most indispensible to Stan in constructing the Marvel Universe?

Pierre: For the early years, that’s easy: Don Heck! But beyond those early years there were artists like John Buscema, John Romita, and Gene Colan who no doubt helped but I think, were less involved in outright innovation than Kirby and Ditko were. The real indispensable man was a writer, Roy Thomas. I think he even more than Stan, took this new Marvel universe seriously as a coherent, interconnected entity. Where Stan could be a bit lackadaisical about continuity, Roy made it an overriding concern. He wrote stories to fill gaps in the history as much as to entertain in their own right. He brought a serious, deliberate intent to keeping things straight where Stan may never have thought too much about it.

JV: Had he not died in that tragic train accident, would Joe Maneely have been one of the founding creators of the Marvel Age of Comics? Would his style have lent itself to this new universe?

Pierre: That’s hard to say, at least to my mind. His style was nothing like Kirby or Ditko’s. But if Heck could adapt then why not Maneely? But to me, his style seemed overly rendered, dark, and ultimately stiff. There didn’t seem to be too much attempt at breaking out of the six panel grid etc. So I don’t know how Maneely would have fit in. Maybe he would have been sidelined to the dying western comics or become mainly an inker. 

JV: You examine nearly every major issue and story in the Silver Age of Marvel in Marvel Comics In The 1960’s. What were your top 5 favorite stories?

Pierre: My top five storylines were Amazing Spider-Man #s 17-19 because it encompassed everything that made Marvel so fascinating to a kid in the 1960s; FF #s 48-50 for the Galactus trilogy that opened up the Marvel universe to well…the whole universe!; FF #51 because it expressed all of the high flown ideals that were embodied in Marvel in the 1960s, it’s optimism about people and the country; Sgt. Fury #13 because it was an epic length but single issue story that perfectly captured Cap and Bucky with art and story by Stan the Man and King Kirby!; Avengers #32-33 because it featured Don Heck pencils and inks on a cautionary story that was quintessentially Marvel…something you’d never see the competition doing at the time; FF Annual #6: “Let There Be Life!” whose message again encapsulated Marvel’s values including that of respect for all human life, no matter how small or helpless. A message that seems wholly absent from today’s comics. 

JV: A number of years ago Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego Magazine looked at what might have been had Jack Kirby continued to draw The Incredible Hulk past issue #6. Why do you think the Hulk failed to catch on with readers right away? What makes the character such an enduring creation today?

Pierre: I think it failed in those first six issues because neither Stan nor Jack had a clear idea of what to do with the character. His personality and behavior changed with nearly every story. Later, when Stan teamed with Ditko on the strip for Tales to Astonish, ground rules were established that gave readers points of reference that they could rely upon from issue to issue. Also, the serial format helped new stories progress naturally from previous ones. Aside from that, the character is such a limited one, I can’t for the life of me figure out why it has continued to be popular all these years!  

JV: Who is your favorite Marvel character or title to come out of the 1960’s Marvel Age of Comics?

Pierre: Spider-Man. When I was a kid, I immediately identified with his loner status and his apparently endless list of problems! The strip also had many interesting supporting characters (including the Torch who was far more interesting here than he was over at the FF!), real world problems, colorful villains, and intricate plotting. 

JV: In your book Marvel Comics In The 1960’s one of the Jack Kirby devices you took about is his use of the larger 4 panel page. What do you think is his most important contribution to the medium for advancing a story?

Pierre: In terms of Hollywood, Kirby was about 40 years ahead of his time. For example, today’s movies are shot and edited at a much faster pace than they were in the golden age of Hollywood. The viewer isn’t allowed to hardly catch his breath, pick up plot points, or get to know the characters before the action barrels along to a thrilling, often over the top FX laden climax. That’s all pure silver age Kirby who did the same thing. It was what differentiated his comics from those of Ditko or Heck say. Kirby’s characters were constantly in motion, his stories never stopped long enough for character development of sub-plots; they carried you along like a roller coaster to their final, furious conclusion!

JV: I have always had an affinity for some of the lesser known contributions to the Marvel Age such Sgt. Fury and the trio of Western heroes. What do you think about some of the unsung creators from this period?

Pierre: If you’re looking for some comment on unsung artists of the Marvel age I would point out the number of fill in artists who worked on the Giant-Man strip in Astonish. Dick Ayers and Bob Powell are two that come to mind. They weren’t very good…or at least not on super heroes, but I do have a soft spot for the relatively awkward jobs they turned on the strip. Or Dick Ayers and Carl Burgos on the Torch strip in Strange Tales.

JV: What can you share about your upcoming follow-up book to Marvel Comics In The 1960’s?

Pierre: It’ll be called Marvel Comics in the 1970s: An Issue by Issue Field Guide to a Pop-Culture Phenomenon and will follow exactly the same format as the first volume. It will cover what I’ve termed the twilight years that extend through the 1970s an era in which the flagship titles took a back seat to newer more offbeat features. Actually, the whole project was conceived as a single book but the publisher, TwoMorrows Pubs, decided it would have been too big so divided it at roughly the half way point which was the end of the grandiose years. The new volume will be available in May, 2011.

JV: Will there be a third installment of your study of Marvel Comics?

Pierre: No, this is it.

JV: Are you planning on ever tackling the Distinguished Competition?

Pierre: No. Besides not being very enthusiastic about the subject, I don’t feel I’m qualified.

 JV: How have you come up with such great art and images for your books? Do you own any original comic art?

Pierre: All credit for the images has to go to TwoMorrows and its staff, particularly layout man supreme Rich Fowlkes who has been great to work with. I made up a dream list of the kinds of illustrations I’d like to see in the book from Marvel pages to historical photos and he’s bent over backwards to accommodate me. And if he can’t find what I want, he makes his own suggestions that usually turn out to be exactly what I would have picked. Unfortunately, I don’t own any original art…I’ve preferred to spend my hard earned shekels on buying the comics themselves! The new book though, will feature quite a few original art pages reproduced from the pencils.

JV: As we move further away from the printed comic book and more and more is available digitally to a wider, younger audience do you think that one day comics – especially the Silver Age Marvel canon – will be studied as a truly great contribution to our literary culture and break through the pop culture barrier?

Pierre: I used to think so but not so much anymore (see that high school psychology paper I mention above). I think it’s limited by the very nature of its format i.e. little pictures accompanied by word balloons. There was a brief instant of time in the 1980s with Frank Miller’s Batman Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen when it seemed the outside world was about to embrace comics as an art form suitable for adults, but that Prague Spring seems to have fallen by the wayside. Today, the comic stores are flooded with pretty much juvenile fare more suitable for youths but not for grownups. Silver age comics, particularly Marvel, I think will retain a certain pop culture cache, but beyond that, I don’t think anyone is going to take Marvel Zombies or Crisis VI very seriously. 

You can keep up with Pierre online here and be sure to look for Pierre’s new book Marvel Comics In The 1970’s this May from TwoMorrows. Don’t forget to pick up the first installment Marvel Comics In The 1960’s now to get all caught up on the story thus far. Excelsior!

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