Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
Hey, it wouldn’t be a Robot 6 post without a “let’s you and him fight” angle. But now that that’s out of my system, there’s a lot one could say, pro and con, about Axel Alonso’s promotion to editor-in-chief of Marvel. Actually, the level of surprise with which the news was greeted says something all by itself. True, he’s never been the public figure that his predecessor Joe Quesada and colleague Tom Brevoort (who, again, has long said he didn’t want the EIC job) have been, so in that regard he’s an unknown quantity to readers and fans. To creators and editors, however, everything I’ve heard indicates that his reputation is sterling, dating back to his involvement in Vertigo — he’s well-liked personally and well-respected professionally (unless you’re Darwyn Cooke).
Personal anecdotal evidence is routinely the least reliable kind, but I myself can tell you that he was friendly and attentive to me during my earliest years of having a professional interest in comics, way before I had even the minuscule amount of recognition I have today and thus when it was totally unnecessary for him to be so. I’ve heard from many other people that that approachability remains in place today. Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that like the similarly respected Quesada, Alonso has roots in creator-driven and creator-owned comics, something that surely goes a long way when you might otherwise be seen as simply the head suit in a major corporation.
And despite the increased prominence of franchise-wide crossovers for the X-Men under his reign, Alonso seems to me to remain the torchbearer for Nu-Marvel, the era when off-the-beaten-path creators were essentially given carte blanche to take the company’s characters and run with them. Certainly that’s been the raison d’etre of the Alonso-spearheaded MAX line, which has become for contemporary crime novelists what Law & Order was for working New York actors. Of Marvel’s major editors, he seems the least concerned with traditional superheroics — which approach, after all, revived the fortunes of the company in the early ’00s to the point where they went from Chapter 11 bankruptcy to multibillion-dollar Disney acquisition in ten years. For readers who hanker for that freewheeling feeling again in this the age of linewide events that point nearly every book in the same direction at the behest of a relatively small cadre of editors and creators, Alonso seems like your best bet.
On the other hand, Larsen is basically right about the low-key state of the X-Men under Alonso, even if he’s probably way too harsh in his assessment and certainly too narrow-minded in terms of whom he’s blaming. The X-Men still sell, after all, and important issues regularly crack the Top 10, even if they no longer dominate it as a whole. But yes, since the departure of Joss Whedon — and arguably before that, when it became clear Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men was an adjunct to the line rather than its flagship; and arguably before that, when Grant Morrison’s abrupt departure left the line and its then-flagship New X-Men floundering — the X-Men, which had been the dominant property in North American comics for around 25 years, assumed second-banana status to the Avengers in Marvel’s line-up. Now, correlation does not imply causality, and there are any number of possible reasons I could suggest for why that happened that either predate or simply have nothing to do with Alonso’s role as editor: a desire on the part of the company to push the characters to whom they retained the movie rights; an unrelated drive to shore up what had long been a weak point of the line; the individual interests of the creators and editors at the company at the time; the innate resonance of the Avengers’ quasi-military set-up and quasi-terrorist antagonists with the country’s mood for the past decade, versus the X-Men’s less zeitgeisty status as outcasts and outsiders; Wolverine’s spread into the Avengers franchise and the X-books’ subsequent lack of a unique claim to the company’s biggest character; the X-Men’s near-total lack of involvement in the company’s event comics (although that in turn invites the question of whose decision that was); and on and on and on. But whatever the reason, and despite the presence of acclaimed writers like Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction in the Uncanny X-Men driver’s seat, little that has happened on Alonso’s watch has changed the X-Men’s status as the Superman to the Avengers’ Batman, leaving how he’ll handle the whole line and its bestselling Avengers franchise something of a question mark.
Similarly, it’s Tom Brevoort who’s been at the center of the storm when it comes to planning and executing the company’s major events: Avengers Disassembled, New Avengers, House of M, Civil War, The Death of Captain America, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign and Siege all originated in his shop. Alonso’s crossovers have been X-specific and thus tell us less about how he’d oversee one of the big ones, although with Fear Itself just a few months away, we’ll soon find out. And speaking of Brevoort, Alonso isn’t half as outspoken as his counterpart, nor is he anywhere near as frequent a presence on the Internet or as the star attraction of comic-con panels. With fan outreach and carnival-barker hype just as much a part of the EIC gig as figuring out who’s secretly a Skrull or who gets to kill the Sentry, Alonso’s strengths and weaknesses in those departments are also largely unknown.
Meanwhile, useful though it has been as a means to field-test talent and push the boundaries of where Marvel’s properties can go in terms of raw content, Alonso’s MAX line — with the exception of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s wonderful Alias and Garth Ennis’s bible-black Punisher run, both now years behind us (please note: We would also have accepted U.S. War Machine) — has never produced an evergreen hit of the lasting acclaim or staying power of the big Vertigo titles, including many Alonso himself was involved with. Now, you can convincingly argue that MAX was never intended to do work that way: It doesn’t have the creator-owned capacity of Vertigo, just for starters, and for a long time now it’s been a miniseries-based line rather than an ongoing-series one. But regardless of whether you view the line as a failure or a success that simply has modest goals, it too doesn’t tell you much about how Alonso would govern the whole Marvel line.
To a certain extent, we can glean how Marvel thinks Marvel might fare under an Alonso administration by noting the credits they saw fit to mention in the press release announcing his promotion. There’s the X-Men and the MAX line, which stand to reason as they were his most recent gigs. There’s an (almost — don’t forget the Princess Di debacle) unqualified creative success in the form of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix, one of the great Nu-Marvel books. And there’s that Marvelized issue of ESPN Magazine, because hey, a head honcho has to be all about synergy these days. But there’s also Rawhide Kid, the much-maligned Ron Zimmerman Western that gained notoriety more for the simple fact of its protagonist’s sexual orientation (and the somewhat less than decorous methods by which it was depicted — Brokeback Mountain this ain’t) than for its quality as a work of art. And there’s Amazing Spider-Man during J. Michael Straczynski’s tenure on the title, a period in which the sales were generally strong but the stories, I think it’s safe to say, were more talked-about than beloved: the retconning of a magical element into Spidey’s previously science-fictional origin; the revelation of a sexual relationship between the Green Goblin and young Peter Parker’s late love interest Gwen Stacy, complete with hushed-up pregnancy; a persistent emphasis on mystical elements in storylines like “The Other” in ways that seemed discordant with the character as he’d come to be known; and of course the hugely divisive “One More Day” arc in which Spider-Man literally made a deal with the devil to save his octogenarian aunt at the expense of his marriage. It can be argued that Alonso’s creativity-encouraging willingness let his creators follow their bliss went a bit too far during JMS’s run on the company’s most iconic character (even if, as rumor has it, there were contractual reasons behind the hands-off approach).
So where does that leave us? Well, in a position not all that dissimilar from where we were when Marvel tapped one of the two outside contractors who ran its comparatively edgy Marvel Knights sub-imprint to take over the whole megillah in 2000. If I recall correctly, Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Knights line had produced a high-profile hit in Daredevil, a pair of cult favorites in Black Panther and Inhumans, and a pretty major misfire in that Punisher thing where he hunted demons. Sure, Quesada also had a history as a publisher thanks to his and Palmiotti’s Event Comics, but that sword cut both ways: Unlike Alonso, a fixture in Marvel’s halls for a decade, Quesada was a true outsider to the company and its culture. With that as your starting point, Marvel’s subsequent trajectory under Quesada, from anything-goes home of Morrison, Milligan, Millar, Bendis et al to blockbuster event-comic juggernaut to vital creative center of a multimedia conglomerate, was all but impossible to predict.
But hey, let’s give predictions a shot anyway. My guess it that you’ll see Alonso use his rapport with the creative community to continue what by all accounts is a stellar creator-relations regime at the publisher. You’ll see his innate sensibilities and eye for a certain variety of talent made manifest in a climate where creators who like their superheroics with a hard edge continue to feel at home. You’ll see some Alonso-esque high concepts a la “X-Men vs. vampires” or “Hit-Monkey” lobbed at the wall to see if they stick. I would guess you’ll see more opportunities for writers to work with big-name characters relatively free of line-wide directives — perhaps through renewed emphasis on the Marvel Knights or Astonishing labels, perhaps even in certain hands-off titles within the core franchises. (Here’s hoping!) How will he fare with Marvel’s main moneymakers, aka events and Avengers? That’s tougher to say, but keep in mind that story summits and creative committees have long been the driving force behind these things, even if individual writers or editors eventually take point. Everyone may have shifted up a rung on the ladder on the editorial end, but the players are basically all the same. If anything, the presence of an EIC who isn’t also being pulled in multiple directions by simultaneous CCO duties as was Quesada over the past year or so will likely improve the focus and morale of the publishing wing all by itself — that’s not a reflection on Quesada, who goes out with a lot of good will on his side and whom I frankly respect a great deal, but it could be a welcome shot in the arm after a year of punishing sales declines, lackluster responses to big initiatives, and fan enthusiasm at a low enough ebb that Tom Brevoort talks repeatedly and publicly about needing to get people excited again. And that’s one thing you can say for sure about naming Axel Alonso the new editor-in-chief: It’s gotten people excited.