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?
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.
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…?
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,