July 28, 2016


Interview: Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso Talks Diversity, Critics & Piracy

Judith Stephens/Courtesy of Marvel
Judith Stephens/Courtesy of Marvel

It didn't start with Riri Williams. 

Marvel Comics' push for more diverse superheroes started in earnest several years before the 15-year-old was announced as Iron Man's successor in early July. We've seen a female Thor, a black Captain America, a Korean-American Hulk and a Mexican-American Ghost Rider start treading the trail blazed by Miles Morales, a Hispanic and black Spider-Man, and Kamala Khan, the Muslim, Pakistani-American successor to Ms. Marvel, a hero pioneered by the blond-haired, blue-eyed Carol Danvers. Moon Girl, a.k.a. Lunella Lafayette, a recently introduced 9-year-old black character, is being hyped as the smartest person in the universe.

On the creative side, National Book Award–winning Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates—who penned the Atlantic longform wave-maker and award-taker "The Case for Reparations"—became the writer for a top-selling Black Panther reboot. Over the weekend, Marvel announced that Purdue University professor and Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay and University of Pittsburgh professor and Hemming the Water poet Yona Harvey would become the first black women to write for Marvel, tackling the Black Panther spinoff World of Wakanda

“The opportunity to write black women and queer black women into the Marvel universe, there’s no saying no to that,” Gay told the New York Times. Coates weighed in with, “It’s not, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there are more women writers, more women creators in comics?’ That would be nice, but in many ways, it is kind of an imperative.”

Axel Alonso, the Mexican-American editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics since 2011, spoke to Fuse about where the company's been and where it's going.

Fuse: Tell me about this spread of Marvel heroes whose genders, races and cultural backgrounds are so noticeably shifting and broadening.
Axel Alonso: It's a wave that we only somewhat control. A priority for us was that we would diversify our line, both in terms of the characters and the creators. But I don't think anybody expected we would be able to move this quickly. It started, I think the first—we can go back and look at the arrival of Miles Morales [and] the success of Kamala Khan as being examples where things just worked. 

There was a point at which both Jason Aaron, who was writing Thor, and Rick Remender, at about the same time, had ideas to put new characters in the uniforms, in the costumes—in Thor's case a woman, Jane Foster, and in Captain America's case, Sam Wilson. Those happened with two writers who weren't even talking with one another, you understand? They had a similar idea to play with an icon, they both came up with compelling reasons to do so and we went for it. And we suddenly realized that we had an Avengers landscape that didn't look anything like the movies. Equally important, people were embracing it, people were loving it. Jason's female Thor outsells his male Thor. She connected with people, same way Kamala Khan connected with people. So really it's just been about that.

How did Riri Williams come into play specifically?
Brian [Michael Bendis] introduced Riri into his Iron Man run with a plan in mind. He became the writer of Civil War II after he'd already started writing Iron Man. In writing Civil War II and plotting it with the editors and writers, as the story came into focus and the details emerged, suddenly we saw Riri's role exploding. We pivoted; events required us to pivot. His plans took a detour, and his great plans became bigger.  

Am I actually calling Riri Williams Iron Man?
All I'll say is the book is called Iron Man. The question will be: Will someone like Riri embrace the title "Iron Man"? Read and find out.

Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics

There's been pushback about this character being written by a white man, which has extended to criticisms of Marvel's roster not featuring enough people of color.
This is part of a larger cultural discussion about diversity that cuts across all media platforms. We have been well-aware of this problem—it’s industry-wide—and we have been taking steps to course-correct it for a long time, as, I think, our current line reflects. Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Walker and Geoffrey Thorne were working on series a long time before they were announced, and there are plenty of other series that haven’t been announced because they took longer to produce. And the two writers we announced this past weekend at San Diego Comic-Con—Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, who are writing the upcoming Black Panther: World of Wakanda series—were recently recruited because we saw creative opportunities grow out of books we are already publishing. 

In this medium, new creative opportunities arise all the time. Riri Williams is one of them. Brian created her in Invincible Iron Man and through events in Civil War II, he’s positioning her for a prominent place in the Marvel Universe, but that hardly means that he is going to be the only person to write her now that she’s here. It just doesn’t work that way. Who knows, maybe Roxane or Yona might take an interest in Riri? Maybe someone we’re talking with that you’ve never heard of?

So many industries need to recognize these structural imbalances and course-correct— particularly, like you said, media platforms. It's dire that more people of color get opportunities to tell their own stories. At the same time, it feels like a lot of the criticism skips over the positive impact of the diversity that's simply on the page, the changing landscape that little kids especially are getting to see.
The funny thing is, we agree with some criticism, and that’s the stuff we have been course-correcting for years, the results of which you’re seeing now. But some critics are unfair or short-sighted, and they come from both sides, the right and the left, the extreme poles of which are barely distinguishable [laughs]. At the end of the day, we know our priorities and we know what we stand for. Our goal is to tell the best, most relevant stories to the widest possible audience. And to do that, it’s important that our readers see their own reflection in our characters. Over the past decade, we’ve been working toward diversifying that landscape. Characters like Black Panther and Luke Cage are hotter than ever. Characters like America Chavez, Mosaic and the Midnight Angels are positioned for big things in the future. Who knows what the next generation of comic book creators will look like because of what they’re reading today?

We suddenly realized that we had an Avengers landscape that didn't look anything like the movies.

Axel Alonso

What's it like dealing with the critics who don't want to see any changes to the Marvel Universe, period?
Look, when you introduce a character like Miles Morales, Kamala Khan or the female Thor to the world, it is inevitable that you will get an earful on the internet. Riri Williams is just the latest example. And there are two types of critics: on one side, those that only want to see a character like Riri under very specific circumstances and won’t consider our recent track record as an indicator of her future. And on the other hand, those that don’t want to see a character like Riri Williams at all. But the third camp is the largest, and we saw them at San Diego Comic-Con: people that are excited to see a character like Riri, and can’t wait to see how her story unfolds. 

Ultimately, Riri will connect with fans or she won’t. If she does, it will be because her story is universal. Both Peter Parker and Miles Morales are popular characters because their stories speak to a broad audience, not to a specific demographic. The color of Miles' skin does make him a little bit more accessible to a little boy who looks like him, but it doesn’t define who he is. That's the most important thing. I was constantly searching for a Mexican superhero when I was a kid—there ain't none! So I latch onto Black Panther and Luke Cage. And Shang-Chi. That's never been lost on me.

Shifting gears: How does it feel when stories like major deaths and developments show up online before people can even buy the issue? It's happened at least a few times with Civil War II already.
We can't control...this is an industry in which there will always be predatory sites who are able to use the system to their advantage. They're able to find people, in certain cases retailers, who are willing to turn over information that's not yet public and post it. That's the world in which we live right now. The creators spend a lot of time working on an idea and they'd like to have at least some semblance of control about the way that it's told to the world. By going to a larger media outlet, and a strategic media outlet, we can get the right bang for our buck, get the right message out and control the message. There's instances where that's taken out of our hands, and a lot of people applaud those outlets like they've done them a favor, when it's actually hurting the market and it's mean-spirited because it hurts the creators. No one resents that more than the creators. And I hope I'm clear and I hope this gets into the article, 'cause it's a bad thing.

It's tricky. I do often feel conflicted about whether to cover a big, spoiler-y story that's circulating. If it's a case like Riri, it's about a character who's coming soon, Brian Michael Bendis gives an interview about it, it feels fine. Then there's stuff like that recent major Civil War II death, or Captain America saying "hail Hydra." Once it's everywhere, we as a site usually do want casual fans and fans of the movies to have a chance to know about this cool or shocking thing.
You make an important distinction here, which is the fact there are hardcore comic readers and there are casual fans and new fans. There are even hardcore comic readers who don't pay attention to websites, you know? True comic fans, everyday fans who don't really want to go to the Internet because they don't care about the peripheral news, they don't want that. They just want to read the comic book. But there will always be gossip page-style reporting in our field, that's part of it. As long as that's there, we have to reconcile our plans against that. 

There are occasions when we have to, and we work with our creators, to get news out a little in advance, simply because we know that if we don't, someone else will. I want to be very clear, we're very strategic with how we do that. But for a book like Civil War II, which is selling somewhere around 300,000 copies, a book that a lot of people count on to keep revenue generated in the arteries of this business, it's very important to us that we control that message and that everyone benefit from it, not a site that is ultimately only benefiting from it by getting hits. It's the same thing as piracy. The day a comic book comes into a store, which is the day before it's released to the public, there are people that consider themselves heroes because they'll take that comic book, scan it and post it online. And who hurts from that? Pretty much everybody. Some people get to read it for free, but the long and short of it is that book ends up flirting with cancellation a lot quicker if not enough people are actually buying it. Who's hurt the most? The creators. We hear from them all the time. No one is more bitter when that happens than the creators.

What kind of role do you see comics playing in this election season and this very intense climate?
Marvel comic books prosper when we reflect the world and what's going on. Honestly, if you take a look at Civil War II and what's going on not only in that series and some of the philosophical and at times political questions that are being asked, but in its spinoff series, I think you'll see that you have writers and artists striving to talk about this through metaphor. It's a unique metaphor comics can provide, there's two ways you take on issues: straight-on or through metaphor. The X-Men, as an example, were embraced by so many people for so many decades because they provided a very safe way to talk about issues of race, issues of bullying, of homophobia, issues of otherness. I think people who wouldn't have been inclined to want to talk about race may not have understood that they were reading about race. 

Sometimes comics can provide a way of people touching upon something that's very close to home, with just enough distance that people can grapple with it and come to terms with it. That said, there are people that accuse us of being too left wing and of being too right wing, that's the way it goes. I think we like to be on the right side of history, there are things we don't abide, things we have to stand for, but we don't take a political stance. We're not Democrat or Republican.

Watch Axel Alonso tell Fuse about Marvel's hip-hop variant comic book covers at New York Comic Con: