When it's time to make the big decisions on the nuts and bolts creation of Marvel Comics, people have to Talk to the Hat.
An outstanding industry vet and fashion forward editor, Marvel SVP of Publishing Tom Brevoort is back on CBR News for Marvel's TALK TO THE HAT. Our latest weekly look inside the minds at Marvel spotlights Tom along with his signature pork pie and loads of comics news, views and discussion. Anchored by regular question and answer rounds with the denizens of the CBR Message Boards, each week Brevoort will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and new interactive features.
This week, Brevoort drops the hammer with a blow-out Q&A covering everything Thor! With Marvel Studios' big budget action flick opening in theaters across America tonight, Tom digs into how Marvel Editorial prepares for a movie made in house versus licensed film franchises, explains his personal editorial philosophy on how Thor should work across the Marvel Universe and proffers some points on how the god hero's secret identity should be split up on the comics page. As an added bonus, the history of recent changes in the Ultimate U are seen in an all-new light. Read on!
Tom Brevoort: We had a number of screenings for Marvel folks over the past few days. The first was the actual Premiere out on the West Coast, which was attended by the cast and crew as well as a number of our West Coast creators, including Brian Bendis and Matt Fraction and Stan Lee himself. And on Wednesday, we did two screenings here in New York, the first attended primarily by our creators past and present, and the second primarily by the staff.
It’s definitely a very different moviegoing experience to see one of these films with a Marvel audience, in that we’re all “in on the joke”, so to speak, and there’s consequentially an audience reaction to every reference and in-joke. And "Thor" is chock-full of them, including on-screen cameos by Walt Simonson, JMS, Stan of course, Marvel bigwig Alan Fine and our very own Ralph Macchio. Those are moments that won’t mean very much to a typical viewer, but which brought up a hoot and a holler in the crowd I saw it with.
And while I highly doubt that your opinion of the film would be "Meh...it wasn't so hot..."
Brevoort: [Laughs] What are the odds?
I was wondering what your impressions of the film were in terms of how you've approached the character on the page over the years. Did Branagh and company get it right?
Brevoort: I think they did an excellent job of boiling down a character and a mythology that could very easily have been off-putting to a standard audience and making it not only accessible and interesting, but fun as well. And I was surprised by how visual the movie was. I don’t think any of the trailers really have given a sense as to how large-scale and epic it is. It’s funny, a few days ago I had a discussion about the Avengers movie, and my concern that no amount of money would be enough to realize it on the screen properly. But having seen "Thor," my concerns on that score are all allayed – they’ll have to go some to top the scope of this picture. The bar has definitely been raised!
Also surprising to me is that I found myself much more hooked into the Earthbound story, and wished that there was just a little bit more time spent with Thor and Jane. Helmsworth and Portman have such a nice chemistry going on that I wanted to see more of them just interacting with one another. The “Rom-Com” aspect of the picture really works, and will likely appeal to a different sector of the audience than you typically can reach with a super hero film, which is great.
I can’t imagine that any hardcore fan of Thor is going to be disappointed. There’s a moment within the first twenty minutes that’s absolutely guaranteed to sell all of them., and it only gets better from there. And I also feel like somebody who’s never heard of the character before can walk in and have a good time, and not feel lost or overwhelmed. It’s great fun.
I get the feeling that those of you in the office are a bit more connected to the Marvel Studios films not just because creatively Marvel has more of an impact on them than, say, the "Spider-Man" or "X-Men" movies, but I also feel that the in house movies have seen their characters benefit from an extra spotlight in Marvel publishing the past few years. Have you guys internally said, "Since our eggs are in the Iron Man/Cap/Thor basket, let's try and ramp up those properties"?
Brevoort: Well, I don't think it's quite as simple as that. Certainly we publish a lot of X-Men comics and a lot of Spider-Man comics. The difference is that – at least in publishing – on a day-to-day basis we're not even aware of what's going on with the film production on both of those characters. I've seen the "X-Men: First Class" trailers, and I know exactly as much about it as you do. Where as with the Marvel Studios films that we're doing ourselves, we're much more actively involved on a regular basis, and so there's a little more opportunity for cross-platforming and cross-integration. A lot of that also has to do with the fact that the Marvel Creative Committee – which includes Dan [Buckley] and Joe [Quesada] and a few other folks – are involved in giving notes and feedback to Kevin Feige and his guys. So there's a more direct pipeline. Every once in a while, Brian Bendis will start talking about something in regards to an "Avengers" script, and it'll take me a few seconds to realize "Oh! He's had some previous conversation with someone who's involved with one of the films, and he's put forth an idea there that he also wants to explore in 'Avengers.'"
The immediacy of the interaction is such that it's more natural that those characters are going to come to the fore. I think regardless, if you're doing a big film with any of the characters, they're going to become bigger. And if you have a successful film as we did with "Iron Man," well then Iron Man is almost immediately going to become a much more important, much more prominent Marvel character. That's true regardless of what we do in Publishing, though I think we should certainly take advantage of that in Publishing and steer into that. As Marvel Studios gears up towards a major film, we're going to know about it, and if we're not doing a lot of stuff with the characters involved yet – though it's not like we were ever not doing stuff with Iron Man, Thor or Captain America – it's easier when we know what things are coming up to direct our efforts on them. We aim for the movie release time and make sure there's an accessible, mainstream-friendly story that's in a collection on bookstore shelves. And we make sure there's enough exposure for those characters, to help prime the pump for the film release.
We haven't yet done a Marvel film that stars what you'd consider a B or C-list character. Once we get to those, we'll see exactly how we can build up that character within the books beforehand. The closest we've ever seen to that with a Marvel character was "Blade" years ago. That kind of came out of nowhere because no one in publishing was really aware of what was going on with those films. Consequently, while Blade may have a higher profile, he's just not as crucial to the publishing line. We give him a shot at a solo book every once in a while when people have an idea for him, or we bring him into "X-Men" or "Ultimate Avengers" and look for opportunities to use him. If the circumstances were right, we'd put him in "Avengers." But had the kind of interaction that exists now between Marvel Studios and Publishing existed back in the day, Blade probably would have become a lot more central to our planning. We would have known what was coming and tried both to tee it up, and to take advantage of the massive amount of promotion and awareness that is sure to follow any film release.
So I don't think there’s any greater emphasis on the Marvel Studios characters than the ones optioned by other studios. If you look at our "Previews" catalogue, it's not like we've taken our foot off the gas on X-Men or Spider-Man. We still publish plenty of both, and we still put the same kind of resources against those books as we do Iron Man or Thor. Those characters matter to us. It's just a little easier to get behind Iron Man or Cap or the Avengers because we know more about what's going on on the film side. More of us have read the script or seen the production designs, and that tends to get people excited about the possibilities.
The same thing goes for the properties we're developing in animation and television under Jeph [Loeb.] Those connections build pretty naturally since Jeph is at all of our creative retreats anyway as a writer. They just tend to come up. "Hey, we're doing this thing in the 'Ultimate Spider-Man' cartoon that's similar to something percolating over here. Maybe we want to do something to connect the two or reflect the two." It's all part of us being one shop as opposed to "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" It's not as though we don't know that they're doing the "Amazing Spider-Man" film. And maybe Joe Q knows a bit more about that, or maybe Dan does, but depending on what the particular deal is, we're less intimately involved than on any of the films we do ourselves.
With "Thor" specifically, when you compare that property to past Marvel Comics turned movies it feels a bit trickier to pin down. When someone says "Robert Downey, Jr. is Iron Man" there's an expectation for how that movie's story will develop and play. Thor is a harder character to pin down. While the movie people on the Marvel Studios side have, I'm sure, been working on what they think is the best way to introduce that concept to a general audience, Thor spent a few years off the table from the comics even though he's an "A-lister." His focus has shifted a lot. What's the challenge for you in making that hero work for the genera public? Have you recently found the better way to present him?
Brevoort: Let me scroll back, because you said something that's slightly interesting. I think a lot of this is a question of perspective. I would argue that pretty much all the characters at the Thor level – Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk – are all difficult characters in one way or another. There have been periods for each of them during my long tenure at Marvel where people have argued that those guys are not as appealing to a young audience or a general audience or a whatever audience as Spider-Man or the X-Men for a myriad of reasons. Each one has different problems associated with them.
In the case of Iron Man – and this was the common wisdom for a lot of years, which sounds a little ridiculous now having had two successful Iron Man films – for the longest while the argument was that "Kids don't want to read about a middle-aged billionaire white guy who makes weapons.” That's the worst hero you could possibly have. Who could relate to that? And yet, you get the right actor with the charisma of Robert Downy Jr. and the right script and channel the character's journey from being a selfish guy to a heroic guy, and it all works. The same kind of thing is true in the comics. For all that we can talk about "These characters have lost their appeal" or "They're not as strong as they once were" – these are all characters that have lasted 50, 60 or 70 years. In the case of Thor, it's more like 400 years! There's got to be something there that people respond to.
I think some readers draw the wrong conclusions from our publishing decisions surrounding Thor. Part of that is that people don't know or understand the larger picture. That is, we put Thor on the shelf for a while because originally "Thor," "Iron Man" and "Cap" were all going to relaunch at the same time. "Thor" was going to be written by Neil Gaiman; he was interested in it at the time. But some conflict – I don't even remember exactly what it was, maybe scheduling – made it so that Neil fell out of doing "Thor," and rather than just rush a Thor book out, we decided "We've got 'Cap' and 'Iron Man' in good shape. Thor hasn't been the backbone of our publishing plan for a while. Maybe if we put him to rest, we'll have another creative team on par with what Neil would have put on the table to bring him back in a major way later." So we put the book to bed then--for not really that long. It just seemed like a long while because the other two characters were coming out on a regular basis. But then once we had JMS and Olivier Coipel in position, a few of the ideas that JMS came from when Neil was talking with Joe about doing Thor. So the fact that Thor was on the shelf had less to do with any failing in the character than it had to do with us failing to get our creative ducks lined up that particular month.
In terms of dealing with Thor, I'm sure if you ask ten people up here you'll get ten different answers as to what that character is about, but to me it's always gone back to the classic triangle that Stan set up. It's pretty basic: for all that Thor is a 4,000-year-old Viking god hero, it's really a family story. Particularly if you think about when it was done in the '60s, it's a very relevant '60s story. You've got a father who wants his son to go into the family business, but the kid wants to go hang around with those crazy, long-haired humans on earth and play their loud Rock N Roll records. And if only the boy would get serious and give up his crazy lifestyle and come into the family business of running Asgard and continuing the lineage, everything would be fine. Consequently, Odin's kind of a hard ass to Thor. Whereas, from Thor's point of view, the times are changing. "I like the girl I like and the friends I like, and my dad doesn't approve of them. He wants me to do what his dad did and be a plumber, but I want something different for myself. The times they are a'changin, and I've got to do what's right for me, even if that causes strife with my pop."
On top of that, there's the separate issue of Odin, Thor and Loki, where Loki is the adopted son who came from bad circumstances. Odin knows he was born into that but hopes he can put Loki on the right path. Every time Loki falls down, it's his nature so Odin understands it, whereas he's harder on Thor as the first born. Loki is a reclamation project. And Loki knows he's not the favored son, so it creates resentment and hatred that causes him to lash out at Odin, Thor, Asgard and everybody. You've got this nice familial set of connections where once you take away the trappings of winged Viking helmets and the crazy armor, it's the kind of story you'd almost see on a 10 o'clock soap opera.
In terms of what we're doing with Thor now as opposed to then, we're emphasizing slightly different aspects. It's not quite what Stan did in the '60s, but it's still about a strained relationship between a father and his sons. I think those kinds of conflicts are ones that work regardless of the era because they're so basic and so primal. They worked back in the days of the Vikings, and they work today, and they'll work tomorrow. The emphasis might be different in that you've got to tell a two-hour story in a movie versus telling it serially in 20-page chunks of comics, but the core underlying metaphors of Thor work regardless.
There is a pendulum swing between Thor on earth and the big, cosmic Kirby Thor. It feels like Fraction and company have gone towards the latter while we see less of Donald Blake or whatever human counterpart he's been paired with over the years. There is no human counterpart in the movie even, so do you see that becoming a permanent change to the character where Thor will always just be Thor?
Brevoort: I think some of that will depend on what stories Matt wants to tell. Certainly his Thor stories will be different than Kieron Gillen's before him or JMS before him. Thor is still paired with Don Blake and still "time shares" his body with Don Blake. It's really more a question of whether the days and the times when he is Don Blake are what's on the page of the monthly comic or whether that's the stuff in between issues. In terms of the individual emphasis, I don't expect we'll do away with the Blake aspect. Then again, Matt could call me this afternoon and say "Hey! I've got a great story where we do away with the Don Blake connection!" I think that there's something fairly elemental and almost necessary about the dichotomy of Thor the warrior god and Don Blake the mortal healer. When that – or some version of that – isn't present for too long a time, the series starts to lose its grounding.
I first came to Thor in the '70s, which was not the best time to come into the book. You can say that for a lot of characters, but it's especially true with Thor. The reason for that I suspect, looking back at the context of the times is that back then Barbarian comics were big. "Conan" was huge, and there was a whole publishing oeuvre around that sort of character. So despite the fact that Thor was still ostensibly a superhero book, they would tend more often than not to stress the elements of overlap with the world of a Conan or a Kull. So you got a lot more swordplay and more big Viking ships – even if they were big Viking ships traveling through space. That was what the zeitgeist was then. But I could never find a real grounding to that. It was all a bit remote and removed. I didn't care about Asgard, so if Asgard got conquered...so what? It only has impact if I care about the characters, and at that point I wasn't invested.
In my case, I went back further and read the Stan and Jack stuff, and that's when I got it: Thor's essentially got three areas of operation – Earth, Asgard and space. And space is the least important of the three. The trick really is that you need to balance his activity between one realm and the next. Too much of any one, and it tends to tip the playing field and turn people off. A Thor that's just on Earth all the time somehow seems too small. He doesn't have that Kirby gravitas and that Asgardian grandeur that we've come to associate with the character, as well as the big threats we expect. On the other hand, Thor in Asgard all the time loses the human touch. He's just the prince – this nice guy with blonde hair who fights monsters and stuff. Thor in space does the same kind of thing, but it's a slightly different arena. To me, you have to balance those areas of operation a little bit. For every extended saga where Thor is fighting Storm Giants attempting to conquer Asgard, you must then turn around and do a story on earth where Absorbing Man is rampaging through Manhattan while Don Blake is desperately trying to make it to an operation. There's a need to ground that character in the real world.
One of the things that's helped over the past few years has been moving Asgard physically to earth and to Oklahoma where even if you're dealing with Asgard stuff, it's immediately within the eyesight of a normal person and vice versa. You get to see the effect of the gods being on earth and the effect the citizens of Broxton have on the Asgardians. And when something shows up to conquer Asgard, they have to come through Oklahoma to get to it. All the sudden, if Storm Giants come into play, I have something to relate to in that the Storm Giants are trampling houses and overturning cars as they make their way to Asgard. I think that all helps keep the character and his world relatable, but it's a balancing act between all those elements.
Brevoort: I think this is two-fold. Yes, I think there's definitely a difference between what the Ultimate Comics Universe is now and what it was and what it represented ten years ago. That's sort of a product of its own success in a way. When it started, yes, the intention was very much to be the ease of access point for these characters and the universe of Marvel – not so much the main Marvel Universe, though obviously you'd hope readers would springboard from one to the other. These were all supposed to be characters and series that were “continuity light” so as to make them easy to get into. Quite honestly, picking up the random issue of "Amazing Spider-Man" – for the sake of argument – had a lot of baggage in a way that was almost exclusory to people who were not already part of the club. So trying to go back to ground and to reaffirm and reestablish the core dynamic that made these strips work in the first place and update that to make it relevant to the 21st Century is where the Ultimate Universe started.
It's ten years later now, so there's ten years worth of Ultimate trade paperbacks following that universe around. And guess what? It's built up the same kind of history that the regular Universe had. It's impossible to stay at that entry-level point forever if you're telling serial fiction. If you're telling stories where they just start and have a beginning, middle and an end while nothing substantial changes, you can do that indefinitely. But that's not really the heart of what the Marvel experience is about. Our characters do grow and change along the way, and past adventures form the foundation for present adventures. So now Brian Bendis must have written 10 or 15,000 pages of "Ultimate Spider-Man," and all those pages inform the next story he does whether it's overtly or in a subliminal way. "Ultimate Spider-Man" is still a pretty good entry point into the world of Spider-Man, but there's a lot of back story there. Even if that back story is just "Hey, he's Spider-Man, and he lives in a house with his Aunt May, and Johnny Storm and Iceman live with them, and Johnny Storm has black hair" – that's a lot more to choke down than it was ten years ago.
The second thing that's tended to happen is that as the Ultimate Universe and its depiction became successful, some of those creators crossed over to the mainstream Marvel books, and other creators who were influenced by those books started to ply their trade in the main Marvel U. So the Marvel Universe started to pick up the best elements of what was being done in the Ultimate Universe just in the same way that the Ultimate U had 45 years worth of material to cherry pick from. Somebody doing "Captain America" today can't help but be influenced in some way by the Cap that was in "The Ultimates." It's not the same character per se or done with the same tenor, but there's an overlap. So suddenly where there was a bit of a contrast between "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Amazing Spider-Man," that tended to wear away over time as "Amazing Spider-Man" came to reflect, hopefully, the best aspects of "Ultimate Spider-Man" and as "Ultimate Spider-Man" came to accrue the amount of back story and history that "Amazing Spider-Man" had – or at least something like it, because it's only been ten years.
At a certain point, you start to question "What is the difference here? If what we've now got is a mainstream Marvel Universe that's taken all the best bits of the Ultimate Universe, then what is there left for the Ultimate Universe?" Well, you could reboot it back to ground zero, but that seems A) like a risky venture and B) I'm not sure how interesting that would be. "Hey! Here's 'Ultimate Comics Spider-Man' #1...again!" [Laughs] Those stories are only ten years old, and they've been in print continuously, so they're not out of date. You might as well just read the "Ultimate Spider-Man" trade paperback as opposed to going "Well, let's tell the origin of Spider-Man one more time...except this time he'll have a cell phone!" Not that much time has passed to need an update or to need to re-re-imagine a lot of this.
The other way you can go – and the direction we started to track towards – is that this is a self-contained universe, It's only three or four titles at any given point. So there's a nice, easy opt in. One of the real advantages that Mark [Millar] and Bryan [Hitch] had when they did "The Ultimates" was that there was no Ultimate Thor book and no Ultimate Cap book, so they were able to run with all those characters within the context of "Ultimates" and not have to worry about whatever sister title would have to reflect what they were doing or that they'd have to reflect in turn. It's harder to do that in "Avengers" because if you want to kill Captain America there, the writer of the "Captain America" book may have some opinions on that.
Following the string on that, the Ultimate Universe is small enough and in the hands of a small enough number of people where you could effect the kind of changes that are much more difficult to manage in the main universe where there are 60 titles a month. Hopefully, that leads to an interesting and experimental think tank where guys can go off and do stories and run in directions that would not be so easily done in the main books. And hopefully that's interesting as well. We'll see.
So in what ways do the new titles that we've heard about this week – Hickman on "Ultimates" and "Hawkeye" and Spencer on "Ultimate X-Men" and so on – fit that mold? How are they representing that think tank feel?
Brevoort: The intention of the new Ultimate Comics launch is going back to the core of what worked the first time. Over the course of time, what started as a fairly tight creative team that was effectively Brian and Mark and Joe and Bill Jemas expanded to a lot more people. Consequently, the fairly tight and cohesive point of view that Universe once had became diffused over time. So going into the new series of Ultimate books, we're boiling it down again. Basically it will be Brian, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer writing all the titles and having their run of the whole universe. Within their own titles, they have a lot more freedom to play with characters from the X-Men or the Avengers/Ultimates without having to worry about the needs of a book that's two books over. They can world-build that universe in a macro way that's consistent and makes sense for all of their titles. It has a consistency of vision and approach to everything they're doing.
Hickman has proven that he's a world-class world builder in almost everything he's done. So he'll provide a new macro voice to the Ultimate Universe. Then Brian will continue to be Brian and be the heart and soul of the characters – particularly Spider-Man – bringing a more personal and interactive level to the Ultimate U and a kind of guiding spirit to the other two guys. And finally Nick is a fresh new voice who's got a different approach to the kinds of stories he likes to tell and the way he likes to tell them. That hopefully will also bring some new novelty and a new way of doing things to the Ultimate line. The intention is that it's not that different from what was done ten or eleven years ago with Mark and Brian when they were much more young guys on the way up than they were the established old guard. The hope is that this will free them to do some crazier, more interesting things than just taking a story we published 25 years ago and giving everybody cell phones.
But just so we're clear on this on the record...there will still be cell phones even though that won't be the focus, right?
Brevoort: [Laughs] Yes! The Ultimate Universe is all about cell phones. I'm sure there's a deal for product placement already in the works. And if not, people can contact Mark Paniccia at Marvel about Ultimate cell phone use.
Have some questions for Marvel's Talk To The Hat? Please visit the CUP O' Q&A thread in CBR's Marvel Universe forum. It's now the dedicated thread for all connections between Board Members and the Marvel Executive staff that CBR will pull questions for next week's installment of our weekly fan-generated question-and-answer column! Do it to it!